luke Cage

“He’s haunted by cer­tain things but at the same time he’s driven by the greater good”

SFX - - Contents -

Su­per­heroes aren’t renowned for keep­ing it real.

At their shini­est and most god­like – Su­per­man, Iron Man, Thor – they soar over our cities, char­ac­ters built for the sky, not the side­walk. Even ur­ban types like Bat­man or Spi­der-Man swoop be­tween the steel tow­ers of Gotham or Man­hat­tan, high above the scuzz and squalor, above the peo­ple they’ve pledged to pro­tect. Only the ground-level pro­tag­o­nists of Mar­vel’s ever-ex­pand­ing Net­flix em­pire – Dare­devil, Jes­sica Jones, the Pun­isher – look as if they might have blis­ters on their heels, let alone zip­codes to their names.

“Peo­ple some­times get lost in the span­dex of it all,” says Cheo Ho­dari Coker, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and showrun­ner of Net­flix’s lat­est comic book adap. “We fo­cus on the drama and the hu­man in­ter­ac­tion in ad­di­tion to the pow­ers. It’s the op­por­tu­nity to tell deeper sto­ries.”


If you want true street cred­i­bil­ity, you need to go look­ing for Luke Cage. SFX has come to New York to find him. We’re in Bed­ford-Stuyvesant, a neigh­bour­hood once known as Brook­lyn’s Lit­tle Har­lem (tonight it’s dou­bling for its more fa­mous coun­ter­part across the East River). Here the brown­stone build­ings hug the hori­zon, a sky­line lower but no less iconic than Man­hat­tan’s sky­scrapers. The daz­zle of a light­ing rig il­lu­mi­nates the huddle of town­houses and fire es­capes, a cam­era crane caught in its sun-bright spot­light. On set, the lights of a parked po­lice car flash in an ag­i­tated se­quence of red and blue. The sirens of the true-life NYPD howl in the dis­tance.

This neigh­bour­hood has seen race ri­ots and gang wars. It also gifted the world the No­to­ri­ous BIG, a fact far from lost on Coker, a for­mer Rolling Stone and Vibe jour­nal­ist who be­friended the late rap star and co-wrote the 2009 biopic No­to­ri­ous. “To­day is al­ways a poignant day for me,” he tells SFX, in-be­tween set-ups, “be­cause this was the day 19 years ago that he was shot.”

Coker de­clares him­self “a hip-hop head” as much as a “comic book head”. Luke Cage will unite his two loves, weld­ing hip-hop’s en­ergy and at­ti­tu­di­nal bite to the imag­i­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of the Mar­vel uni­verse. Big­gie, he says, is here in spirit.

“The new hip-hop, ul­ti­mately, is trans­lat­ing hip-hop at­ti­tude into new medi­ums. I can’t rap – I freestyle like every­body else, and I’m ter­ri­ble – but I love the mu­sic. How do you trans­late the cul­ture and the feel­ing of it into a new medium? That’s what Mar­vel and Net­flix rep­re­sents – it’s the op­por­tu­nity to make hip-hop tele­vi­sion.

“Now hip-hop tele­vi­sion doesn’t mean peo­ple bounc­ing their shoul­ders and nod­ding their heads,” Coker clar­i­fies. “It’s the op­por­tu­nity to tell sto­ries that have an edge and a hard per­spec­tive but at the same time are deep. If I was go­ing to com­pare Luke Cage to an al­bum, I’d com­pare it to Raek­won’s Only Built 4

Cuban Linx, I’d com­pare it to A Tribe Called Quest’s Mid­night Ma­raud­ers. We’re com­ing with some­thing that is com­pletely new. We have a lot of old el­e­ments but we’re do­ing them in a new way that’s funky and fresh.”

And it’s as much a small-screen graphic

Peo­ple some­times get lost in the span­dex of it all. We fo­cus on the hu­man in­ter­ac­tion

novel as a visual hip-hop al­bum, says Coker, in­sist­ing that the show is true to its pri­ma­ry­coloured roots. “It’s clas­sic Luke Cage, and it’s not dif­fer­ent from the Luke Cage in the comics. But we’re able to go places that you couldn’t nec­es­sar­ily go [in the comics]… Luke Cage be­longs to Mar­vel. But they’re let­ting me drive the car around and they let me take it to the garage and add a couple of things to it. It’s not about rein­vent­ing the car. It’s about mak­ing it roll faster.”

We met Cage in the form of Mike Colter in the first sea­son of Jes­sica Jones. His solo show re­lo­cates him from Hell’s Kitchen to Har­lem. He’s a fugi­tive now, keep­ing his pro­file low, work­ing shifts in a neigh­bour­hood bar­ber’s. The run of 13 episodes teases out his un­told ori­gin, re­veal­ing the truth of the un­law­ful prison ex­per­i­ment that gave him phe­nom­e­nal strength and bul­let­proof flesh. Un­like the in­vin­ci­ble mer­ce­nary of the comic books, this Cage is yet to mone­tise his pow­ers.

“When you think about Luke, when you think about a hero for hire, that’s what makes Luke dif­fer­ent than al­most any other su­per­hero,” Coker tells SFX. “When you see what they go through you’re like, man, they ought to get paid for that shit! In this case it’s not about Luke be­ing a hero for hire. Sea­son one is about Luke em­brac­ing what it is to be a hero.

“What makes Luke spe­cial is that he’s one of the rare Mar­vel char­ac­ters that doesn’t have a

se­cret iden­tity. He doesn’t wear a mask. He doesn’t live in Stark Tower or the Bax­ter Build­ing. You know how to find him. In our world, if you want to find Luke Cage you go to Pop’s Bar­ber­shop. He’s re­luc­tant to be a hero but be­cause he knows the re­spon­si­bil­ity of what he’s tak­ing on, he takes it se­ri­ously.”

As Power Man, Luke Cage was one of the first wave of African-Amer­i­can comic book he­roes, born of the early ’70s Blax­ploita­tion boom that gave us such ghetto-noir crime movies as Shaft, Su­per­fly and Cleopa­tra Jones. In the tin­der­box Amer­ica of 2016, where the hash­tag #black­livesmat­ter re­flects trou­bling racial fault­lines, Cage is a char­ac­ter with a new­found rel­e­vance.

“My main re­spon­si­bil­ity is to tell a story,” says Coker. “The fact that I get to tell a good story that’s cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant is ic­ing on the cake. I think it’s im­por­tant that black artists and black writ­ers have the abil­ity to do that.”


The show doesn’t run from its in­evitable po­lit­i­cal con­text. Point­edly, the screen Cage ex­changes the disco-friendly fashion of those ’70s comics for a hoodie – a wardrobe choice weighted with mean­ing now.

“We’ll def­i­nitely give a shout-out to our ori­gins but wear­ing bright yellow and a tiara is not nec­es­sar­ily prac­ti­cal in this world,” says Coker [in fact the show shot un­der the co­de­name Tiara, a nod to Cage’s fa­mous metal head­band – SFX spots this logo on a wall, ren­dered in a per­fect, drop-shad­owed ’70s font]. “Luke was al­ways func­tional. Even when he wore that in the comic book it was, ‘Okay, I’ve come to Times Square in the ’70s. I need to have a cer­tain look.’

“At the same time there is a com­men­tary be­cause you have peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly African-Amer­i­can males, who have been vic­timised for noth­ing more than wear­ing a hoodie. Peo­ple are say­ing, ‘Oh, if you’re wear­ing the hoodie that’s a thug look’ – be­cause thug has un­for­tu­nately re­placed the N-word. Some­thing that we were very con­scious of, as a writ­ing staff and as a show, was that he­roes come in all shapes, all sizes, all colours. He­roes can also wear hood­ies. I want a world where a kid can wear a hoodie and some­one can look at him and give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt of who he is.

“The hoodie is util­i­tar­ian but at the same time don’t get it twisted,” stresses Coker. “We know ex­actly the pol­i­tics that we’re play­ing and I think that’s im­por­tant. Take Trayvon Martin [the African-Amer­i­can teenager fa­tally shot by a neigh­bour­hood watch vol­un­teer in Florida in 2012]. I’m the fa­ther of twin boys, and to have that con­ver­sa­tion with my sons about the fact that there are peo­ple who will per­se­cute you for how you look and what you wear… That’s a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion for any fa­ther, par­tic­u­larly a fa­ther of African-Amer­i­can kids.”

The show finds Cage caught in a power strug­gle for the soul of up­town, em­broiled in the schemes of Har­lem night­club owner Cor­nell “Cot­ton mouth” Stokes (Ma­her­shala Ali) and lo­cal politi­cian Mariah Dil­lard (Al­fre Woodard). Both char­ac­ters are lifted from the comic books – though Mariah is no longer the grotesque, gun-tot­ing car­i­ca­ture of the ’70s – as is Misty Knight, a Har­lem po­lice de­tec­tive played by Si­mone Mis­sick.

“Cer­tain things hap­pen that force Luke to use his pow­ers to change things for the bet­ter in and around his neigh­bour­hood,” Coker tells SFX. “One thing that [ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer] Jeph

Loeb said that’s very im­por­tant about writ­ing Mar­vel char­ac­ters is that by and large they are not happy to have their pow­ers. Wolver­ine has an adaman­tium skele­ton that he didn’t ask for. Even some­body like Spi­der-Man is haunted by the fact that the one time he could have used his pow­ers would have changed his fam­ily’s tra­jec­tory. The pow­ers are a bur­den but with these he­roes what makes them heroic is what they do de­spite the chal­lenges that they have. With Luke it’s very sim­i­lar. He’s haunted by cer­tain things but at the same time he’s driven by the greater good.”

street Life

It’s an un­sea­son­ably warm March evening in New York. For all the glam­orous pulse of the film­ing there’s a crackle of ten­sion in this neigh­bour­hood tonight, hint­ing at a wider un­ease in the area. In re­cent years gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has seen long­time res­i­dents priced out of the brown­stones. Some lo­cals bris­tle at the pres­ence of the crew, spin­ning TV fan­tasy on their streets.

A man passes us on the side­walk, spots Coker be­ing in­ter­viewed. “Com­ing round this neigh­bour­hood,” he mut­ters. “A cop just got shot round here yes­ter­day!”

Coker con­tin­ues talk­ing but later he makes a point of ac­knowl­edg­ing the in­ter­rup­tion.

“It’s Brook­lyn,” he says sim­ply, un­apolo­get­i­cally. “He was say­ing ‘Don’t think you’re spe­cial be­cause you’re shoot­ing in Brook­lyn. Things can hap­pen.’ That’s the re­al­ity of Bed-Stuy. Brook­lyn is a place that has an in­cred­i­ble his­tory, so there are al­ways go­ing to be peo­ple that feel like if you’re not from Brook­lyn, if you’re an out­sider, then you need to recog­nise and re­spect what’s hap­pen­ing here. That’s al­ways been a thing I’ve done.

“If I’d had the chance to talk to him I would have said, ‘Hey, this is a show that you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to think is cool.’ I wasn’t of­fended by what he was say­ing. I felt he was say­ing we were in­fring­ing upon his abil­ity to walk down the street. And so I apol­o­gise for that, but it’s in ser­vice of do­ing a cool show that I think peo­ple are go­ing to dig.”

It’s time to shoot a scene. A cry of “Run­ning!” moves through the crowd, the word pass­ing in a chain from crewmem­ber to crewmem­ber. On this Brook­lyn Street, watched by its res­i­dents, Luke Cage is about to go into bat­tle, a hero for the peo­ple.

“I just can’t wait for you guys to see the show,” smiles Coker. “I’m sick of be­ing so se­cre­tive about it. It’s ei­ther the great­est thing out there or it’s wack. It’s not go­ing to be in-be­tween. You’re ei­ther go­ing to love it or you’re go­ing to hate it. I’m very con­fi­dent about it but who knows. I’m ei­ther re­ally right or I’m re­ally wrong. I just feel in­cred­i­bly con­fi­dent that it will, at the very least, be en­ter­tain­ing.”

Luke Cage, Builder For Hire might come in handy here.

No, that’s not a gi­ant choco­late di­ges­tive.

It’s nice that men can hug one an­other.

He got the Power. Man.

Wear­ing sunglasses in­side: al­ways a sign of cool­ness.

Hoodie in the hood…

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