If you ask Marvel's Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker to describe his next installment of the Netflix Marvel Cinematic Universe, he'd say it's a standard western motif, entrenched in hip-hop tradition and wrapped in a superhero cape.
If you ask critics what that means, they'll tell you that Luke Cage is profoundly culturally relevant, tapping into the heart of the black American experience at a time when racial tension seems to be at a boiling point.
The 13-episode first season continues the story of Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the bulletproof man first introduced in Marvel's Jessica Jones last year, after he retreats to Harlem. Luke arrives just in time to see the neighborhood starting to be engulfed by its own nefarious crime underbelly masked as "The New Harlem Renaissance." It's clear why a bulletproof black man feels especially relevant today, but Luke Cage elevates the illustration of the American black experience by integrating history and music into the complex storytelling. At the same time, the show invites its audience into the nuanced conversations currently happening within the black community, from the definition of progress and whether people of color can actually get ahead in this country to the propriety of using the N-word.
"Honestly, the fact of the matter is, within hip-hop, within the black community, there's always been a very complex relationship with that word," Coker says of the dichotomy of the characters within Luke Cage who use the word - primarily the gangsters trying to take over, and those who disagree with it - Luke and City Councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard).
"When you use the word, it's not casual. As far as I was concerned, any time this inappropriate word was used it was used in an appropriate fashion. It wasn't just used for the sake of using it. There's an element of it, that yes, it should be uncomfortable, but at the same time this is not a show for kids," Coker continues. "I've heard that word with deep love and I've also heard it used with abject hatred. The complexity of that word also has a certain history. To shy away from it would have ultimately stunted the expression of the show. Was Marvel and Netflix ultimately comfortable with that? Probably not, but I am. So if there's any flack for it, I'll deal with it."
Those character-dividing lines remain the same for the debate about how Harlem's progress should be made. Harlem's apparent underworld king (and also Mariah's cousin) Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) has a cynical perspective that minorities can't truly become successful in America without getting their hands dirty. Meanwhile, Mariah is attempting to revitalize the city in a legitimate way - despite the fact she's accepting funding from her cousin's dirty business. Then there's Luke, who defines himself by a more black and white sense of right and wrong.
"The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of politicians who basically say, 'Look, as long as I have my votes and I have my money, I'm good. I'll clean up enough to keep me elected, but in terms of real change? Whatever. That's just something we sell voters. Then you have people in the criminal world who want legitimacy, but at the same time, they're not going to get the same economic push or charge that they get from being illegal," Coker says.
The warring philosophies not only set up the antagonistic relationships that drive the show's plot, but reflect the complex and often contradicting history of Harlem itself. The neighborhood serves as its own character within the Luke Cage narrative, and grounds the comic-book story in a vivid, urban reality. Coker took pains to create Luke's world with the proper historical context and an expertly crafted musical backdrop because he realized very early on that to make Luke Cage believable his characters would have to live in a world that felt like the same one his viewers live in.
"With the cast that we had, we had to build a realistic, palpable place because it gave them the ability to say, 'Okay, I can really do some serious acting here.' At the same time, they can also serve the themes of comic books which also come from a very real place at well," Coker says. "Sometimes when people do these comic book adaptations, it's almost as if they aren't taking it seriously, like, 'Oh, it's a comic book so we can't go here.'...I want to have this [show] live in a world where we can compete with any drama in all of television. I would put this show next to anything."
Luke Cage is set apart from its predecessor series Daredevil and Jessica Jones in Hell's Kitchen, for a specific reason. Harlem, in its golden age, fostered revolutionary artists Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Armstrong, while simultaneously giving birth to infamous gangsters like Dutch Schultz, Bumpy Johnson and Frank Lucas. Coker purposefully embedded that juxtaposition of beauty and crime, into the DNA of Luke Cage (and sometimes even within the same character).
"You're setting [the show] in a real place, so you can also use the history of that locale and have that affect the superhero narrative...It's not just using Harlem as a backdrop," Coker says. "When you're in Harlem and you're walking around these streets and these places — there's so much history in this place. We wanted to acknowledge it in this universe because it's Marvel, but at the same time it's New York, and it's Harlem — which has always been, to a certain extent, the capital of African-American culture. It's a political history. It's a cultural history, but it's also a criminal history."
Harlem's historical context is expressed in various ways throughout the series. The opening credits feature a street sign for Malcolm X Blvd, the alternative name for Harlem's main thoroughfare Lennox Blvd, where a lot of the show was filmed. Black historical figures like Jackie Robinson are also name-checked within the show. It's important to note that these revolutionaries aren't the usual names like Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks who made their marks on history with peaceful resistance, and thus became the mainstream face of the Civil Rights Movement. Coker uses Luke Cage to shine a light on black heroes you may have missed in your history books, such as Crispus Attucks.
Months before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick became a constant headline for exercising his First Amendment right in protesting the national anthem, Coker crafted a monologue for Luke Cage to educate the masses on one of the first black men to give his life for American rights. In episode 2, Luke delivers the stirring speech about Attucks, the man widely considered to be the first person to die in the Revolutionary War after he taunted patrolling British soldiers during the Boston Massacre in 1770.
"I wanted to talk about the first person to die for a revolution and what that meant, and what he sacrificed. When you look at what happened, [Attucks] could have very easily 'laid in the cut,' as Luke says. He stepped up," Coker explains. "We used Crispus Attucks for that because half of these kids haven't even heard of Crispus Attucks. It's really the power of music, and of entertainment, of film and television. You get to tell stories and history that people have not really thought about in a long time."
Coker also uses music to frame the context of Luke Cage, giving the show its own "pulse," and helping to bring the original comic-book tale out of the 70s and ground it in modern times. Coker spent his pre-TV writing career as music journalist, profiling prolific artists like Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. He used his musical connections to recruit A Tribe Called Quest DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed and composer Adrian Younge to score the show, which features tracks (and sometimes live performances) from the likes of Faith Evans, Method Man and The Delfonics. Again, the music isn't just to make the show sound cool but to serve as a metaphor for the messages the series contains.
"That was kind of the goal, to give the show a pulse. Music is really such an important part of the African-American experience. Rather than show hip-hop, I wanted the show to be hip-hop," Coker says. "It comes from the elements or [the music] answers to something. Old soul as well as blues, gospel and then funk — it was as much about making the fabric of the show come from the entire fabric of black music, but then again having these hip-hop moments of well... I wanted to prove that there was also a complexity in the stories in the feel of hip-hop in addition to the comic books. If you combine both, you have something that is interesting and in some ways profound."
While Luke Cage offers an unadulterated look at the modern black experience with no white point of entry (a la Taylor Schilling's Piper Champan on Orange Is the New Black), the show uses its expert storytelling and comic-book mold to remain inclusive all prospective audience members, no matter their skin tone.
"You could take these general motifs and you could set this within in these culture and find its own equivalent, but because I'm black and these characters are black it's the opportunity to tell the kind of black story that we haven't really seen on television," Coker says. "We can do it in a way where there's a certain level of sophistication. I was lucky that both Netflix and Marvel thought this was important...that they wanted the complexity. They wanted to take risks. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to really try and do something that was both beyond the genre and also deeply apart of it."
In fact, Coker is adamant that while the show focuses on black narratives, it was built for a wide audience to feel included, whether or not they relate directly to the characters' specific experiences or not.
"I don't really want the show to have the mantle of this is the black side of Marvel, as if only black people can enjoy this. I think this show, if anything, is inclusively black," he says. "Yes, this is a hip-hop show, but it's not done at the expense of alienating anyone who didn't sign up for this experience."
Most importantly, Coker wants everyone who tunes in to watch for the fun of the show. After all, peel away the music, the context and the conversation and you're left with a superhero, and that's really what we came for.
"A lot of the press is talking about the politics and the N-word, but what's going to surprise people is how fun and vibrant the show is. It's one of these things that you see it and you want to watch it again," he says. "I am just so thankful that Netflix and Marvel had enough belief in me and what we were doing to let us tell this story in this way."
We are too, Cheo.
All episode of Luke Cage will be available for streaming on Netflix beginning Friday, Sept. 30.