luke cage

Marvel’s Luke Cage is a personification of the Black experience.

The main theme of Marvel’s Luke Cage is uttered within the first fifteen minutes. After sweeping up a barbershop and engaging in playful banter about the New York Knicks, Luke (Mike Colter) gets some sage advice from the shop’s owner, Pop (Frankie Faison). “Always forward, forward always,” the reformed barber tells Cage. Cage nods and agrees with him, still unsure of his new place in Harlem. Unsure of who he is and what he means to people.

Make no mistake, Luke Cage is a black superhero story. The story of a bulletproof black man in a hoodie is not lost on the current consciousness but show runner Cheo Hodari Coker didn’t set out to make Marvel’s Luke Cage the social conscious leg of the Marvel Netflix universe. He made the character as human as possible, as conflicted and morally sound as one could be. The end result is Marvel & Netflix’s finest creation yet, and easily the best comic book property put to the small screen.

Even getting in the room to show off his vision of the Marvel hero took guts. In the initial pitch meeting, Coker pulled out a photo of his grandfather, a Tuskegee Airman as well as a Luke Cage figurine. “I talked about what it was like to be around a black hero, around a man who didn’t get caught up in the hero aspect of it, he just did his job,” Coker said. “Physics had no color, either you can fly or you can’t. Luke doesn’t want to be a hero but in doing this, he takes on this responsibility and will be judged differently than anyone else.”

To surround Luke Cage with the richness of historical Harlem and the entomology that comes along with it, Coker brought on Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge to serve as the show’s musical supervisors. In turn, the duo helped give Coker and Luke Cage an aura of invincibility, part Bond epic, part nod to hip-hop’s past and present.

“Without the framing of Gang Starr, we may not have Luke Cage.”

“At 43, I’m part of the last generation to remember a world without hip-hop,” Coker said during a roundtable at Cactus Music located off Shepard & Greenbriar in Houston. “I remember Songs In The Key Of Life, I remember The Brown Album. When I think of a record like It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, I remember the structure. You take tricks from that in trying to structure a season. It didn’t really begin with the comics or storylines, it began picking song titles that speak to me thematically.”

When Coker speaks, it’s in a frantic manner; his words running together to the point where excitement radiates off of him. That’s the writer within him, constantly wanting to express every aspect of a scene. When it comes to roping in noted producers in Younge & Muhammad, he surmises it with one word: “providence.” The duo even stopped their own joint album to work on Luke Cage, locking into a project that eventually made their own project better.

The framing of the series, even when it came to pitching it to Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb were based around Gang Starr. Without hesitating, Coker began piecing together the story of Cage, his mindset and temperament around particular Gang Starr tracks such as “Moment Of Truth” and “Soliloquy Of Chaos”. Without the song titles, Coker wasn’t going to pitch Luke Cage to Marvel, especially his vision of the iconic ‘70s hero. It had to be authentic, it had to feel real to him.

It ultimately pays off.

The Hero For Hire Is Now Harlem’s Hero

Marvel’s Luke Cage debuted early Friday morning after months of anticipation and teases from multiple platforms. Colter, who plays the titular character first made his Marvel debut last fall with Jessica Jones. There, he was merely the bulletproof hero who played Jones’ love interest. Fans of Jones lauded it for its complex storyline, its human approach to Cage’s backstory and trauma. When it was announced that Cage would get his own stand-alone series as part of Marvel’s Defenders lineup, anticipation only grew.

Cage himself was created by Archie Goodwin as Power Man, a 1970s black hero who had blaxploitation worthy one liners such as “Sweet Christmas” and was only interested in saving the day if a check was involved. A literal “Hero For Hire”, he’s gone minor transformations over the years, including a long appearance on Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man program that airs on Disney. The character, much like Daredevil, Jones & Iron Fist were considered “B Heroes”, the guys you call after The Avengers, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four are called first.

When it comes to his Netflix adaptation, Luke Cage doesn’t play second fiddle. He immediately jumps above Daredevil in terms of importance in the Marvel universe, mainly because of how the most interesting character tied to the Devil from Hell’s Kitchen was actually its villain, Wilson Fisk. Colter in particular is a smoldering hero, charismatic enough with Bond-like one liners but morally upstanding to not play in the shadows. When he speaks, especially in going toe-to-toe with Cottonmouth inside of a Harlem church, he turns up the charm and wins everyone over. Colter becomes Harlem’s hero, even without having to lift a finger in that way. It’s the borough itself; the inhabitants that constantly weigh on him on a daily basis, which ultimately makes the series shine.

cheo hodari coker frankie faison

For Coker, a Stanford alum, journalist and veteran of TV and film (Notorious, Southland, Ray Donovan), he leaned on some of his own influences for Luke Cage. He lifted Shonda Rhimes’ technique of naming every episode of anything in ShondaLand after a pop song. He alluded to certain homages throughout the series, the Notorious B.I.G. painting  in Cottonmouth’s office which originally was supposed to be Basquiat. Picking and choosing when audiences would hear Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring The Ruckus” for an important scene or Nina Simone, John Lee Hooker, or even Mahalia Jackson. Naturally, Younge & Muhammad had a say in the needle drops as well.

“What Adrian & Ali did as composers, they made music to fit the individual moments that we had,” Coker says with excitement. “I took the approach of Martin Scorcese in Goodfellas. It’s all needle drops, no score. He basically goes through his record collection, picks 100 songs and drops them where he feels they need be. Adrian, Ali & Soul Perspective told me that we can compose music to the point where you’re not gonna need that many needle drops. It became a trust thing.”

Tying it all together became paramount for Coker and crew. Wanting to show all facets of the black experience and not single on just one, Luke Cage dives deep into the generational tugs of Harlem. The older, more refined class that refuse to let the N-word or even much a curse part their lips verses the wilder, hungrier and raw younger class. The tone and temperature of the cast from Alfre Woodard’s Black Mariah to Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth & even Simone Missick’s Misty Knight offer a glimpse into the complexities of right and wrong. Of survival and living strictly off of instinct as opposed to high moral standing.

“When you have that kind of texture, you build a world,” Coker said. “When you get us in the writers room, we’re all different. But we talk a lot, we joke a lot. We reveal moments in our own experiences that get filtered through the prism of these characters. And with that, the music just got bigger and better.”

The most fascinating character of Marvel’s Luke Cage? Harlem.

Muhammad & Younge wanted Luke Cage to have a signature sound, a vibe to him. If Charles Bronson dug deep into revenge for all of the family members and was scored to such a tone, Cage dips further into the world of a western. Coker alludes to him being a man with no name, in a city that doesn’t know him. If you’ve sat through and enjoyed Unforgiven with Gene Hackman, Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth could easily be parallel to him.

“There are certain things we did to identify Luke,” Ali Shaheed said. “We wanted to make sure both Luke & Cottonmouth were equally powerful.”

The backdrops that align Cottonmouth and Cage to Harlem are found within Harlem’s Paradise, a subtle nod to New York Undercover‘s Natalie’s. Jidenna’s “Hail To The Chief” operates as a theme for Cottonmouth in a mode of rage and the singer himself guests inside the club. From the first episode, Raphael Saadiq’s “Good Man” underscores Cottonmouth’s demeanor as a business man wanting to seek change. All of those choices, including Faith Evans & Charles Bradley came from Cheo’s ideas.

“With Charles Bradley, we were kinda stressed,” Coker said. “Marvel head Tom Weaver came to us saying he liked Charles Bradley and asked what did I think of it? And man, Charles Bradley … I saw Chadwick Boseman as James Brown but when you see Charles Bradley… man! That brother is James, greasy too!”

“I wanted it to be Marvel’s version of The Wire.” – Cheo Hodari Coker

In a way, Harlem’s Paradise represents the clubs of Harlem lore. The Cotton Club, The Turntable, spots and areas that invoked so many memories and cultural texture. Mixing both elements of Harlem, the endearing side of politicians and activist such as Adam Clayton Powell alongside the gangsters of their era like Nicky Barnes & Frank Lucas is what gives Marvel’s Luke Cage its legitimacy. To note, it may be the only Marvel property in existence to prominently feature Harlem’s own Dapper Dan as a guest character to give Luke Cage a proper suit.

“I wanted it to be Marvel’s version of The Wire,” Coker admitted. “The Barksdales, there was an element that really existed. Melvin’s system, all of that came from real things. So we’re doing the same thing in which, the power comes from Marvel but a lot of the lore comes from Harlem. We can mix a fictional reality along with things that happen. Nobody’s expecting to watch Luke Cage around in his hoodie. Harlem still exists but Hell’s Kitchen? Like Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen? It doesn’t even exist anymore.”

But Luke Cage does. In a time period where Black men are getting cut down in a hail of gunfire, Cage is the hero a lot of people need. He’s icy and cold, witty and personable like the heroes of the ‘70s like Truck Turner, Shaft and the like. He pushes through villains like Marshawn Lynch and often uses very little words when doing so. Cage gets so offended at getting shot at, he winces only because he refuses to get new clothes. Suave, debonair and constantly fighting forces that could ultimately break him, Cage is not only the hero but that hero. He’s tied to an ugly history and also a beautiful one at the same time.

Luke Cage, a heroic personification of the Black experience.

This story originally appeared in Houston Style. Marvel’s Luke Cage is now available for streaming on Netflix.

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