“He’s haunted by certain things but at the same time he’s driven by the greater good”
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.”
NEW YORK MINUTES
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.”
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…