Cheo Hodari Coker talks to ADTV about his comic book roots and what he wanted to convey with Netflix/Marvel’s Luke Cage
Luke Cage is Netflix’s latest critically acclaimed Marvel adaptation. Rather than focus solely on the superhero aspects of the story, the series paints a vivid portrait of modern day Harlem life and its historical significance within the black culture. Luke Cage also offers complex roles for its stars and not just male leads Mike Coulter or Mahershala Ali. Female leads Alfre Woodard and Simone Missick shine in complex and beautifully written roles as well. For these things and more, you can thank series creator Cheo Hodari Coker.
Of course, the ever modest Coker defers credit to the original Marvel source material, which does offer more culturally and gender diverse storytelling than people realize. Still, Cheo Hodari Coker and his team of writers should be praised for ensuring such a smooth transition to the small screen. This blend of superhero action and subtle insight into black culture makes Luke Cage a pleasantly profound addition to the Netflix/Marvel canon.
So, I’m so impressed with what you and the writers did with Luke Cage. It took me by surprise as to how well Luke stands out as a character on his own after being a secondary character in Jessica Jones.
I think what’s great about secondary characters is that, when you follow them home, they can have incredibly rich lives on their own. One of my favorite examples of that is in The Godfather when you follow Clemenza home, and his wife says, “Make sure you bring the cannoli.” Then, he whacks this guy next, and he says, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” It gives you an insight into his character and makes you think about what if you’d stayed with him throughout an entire story. There would be a lot more to this guy. Even though you introduce a character somewhere else, it doesn’t put a limitation on what you can do with him given the opportunity to tell a fully fleshed out story.
What drew you to the Luke Cage series initially?
It was the opportunity to tell a story that was uniquely black, uniquely hip-hop, and uniquely Marvel. Because I excel at being all three, I really wanted to assemble a team of writers that could fulfill that vision. Everybody that I worked with – [writers] Charles Murray, Christian Taylor, Jason Horwitch, Akela Cooper, Nathan Louis Jackson, Aida Croal, or Matt Owens – the grand majority were deep geeks and definitely into the musical/cultural aspect of the show. We came up with something that was a great mix, and, at the same time, Jeph Loeb from the Marvel side was always being the perfect manager. That allowed us to create the perfect combination of personality, story, and perspective. I wanted to basically tell a story that could use Harlem as something more than a backdrop. Something that still looked at Luke Cage as a superhero but still talked about much deeper things.
Talking about those “deeper things,” was that something that you brought to the material?
Well, the potential was always there. I wanted something that could show there is no one black experience. I wanted to show myriad perspectives on blackness in addition to the show never losing sight of its deep geekdom. Even while having characters and using characters as the other superpower of the show, it’s still a purely fun show. You can have social commentary without specifically calling out that it’s social commentary. Marvel has always done that. It goes way back to the very beginning where you had Jewish comic book writers using Captain America as a symbol to defeat fascism. At the same time, you have graphic novels like “God Loves, Man Kills” where you essentially have the various perspectives of MalcomX and Martin Luther King as portrayed by Magneto and Professor X. Stan Lee, from the beginning, knew you could have deep social issues and a platform for that, but by using powers as metaphors, you really have the opportunity to say these things in a way that becomes more universal. You may not understand what it’s like to be black, but, if you can understand what it’s like to be discriminated against, then maybe you can use that as a platform from which to effect change. Art has always been there to provide, to invoke and to inspire.
So I take it you’re a self-described “comic book geek?”
Absolutely. I’m 43 years old. I’ve been reading comics since I was 11 years old. That’s a long time to do anything.
Were you at all concerned about serving both the Marvel fan base and staying true to your own vision for the material?
No because the Marvel fan base is passionate about good storytelling. It’s about the quality, not necessarily being true to canon. The reason Daredevil and Jessica Jones were so successful is they weren’t so tied to the source material that they couldn’t live on their own feet. It’s done in a very respectful way. If you’re too rigid to the comic books, then you can get into trouble, but if you’re able to follow the spirit of the comic books, then that’s what the fanboys will go for.
You manage to keep a strong balance between male and female power roles in the series with great roles for Alfre Woodard, Simone Missick, and Rosario Dawson. Was that something that you strived to do after Jessica Jones?
Well, I’m surrounded by strong women whether it’s my wife, whether it’s my mother, whether it’s my aunt, or whether it’s the many executives I work with. Women are an equal part in this world. My whole thing is that if you have so many compelling male characters, then you need to make sure that your female characters are equally formidable. That wasn’t as much a focus as it is, if you want a show to be watchable, then you need to have something to offer to everybody. When you have actresses that are as talented as the actresses we have, you want to give them a role that inspires them in a similar way to your male actors being inspired by their roles. In the end, it’s really about given the actors something compelling to say no matter who’s doing it.
Luke Cage is now streaming on Netflix.