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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
"The politics of the ’60s are right in your face": Cheo Hodari Coker on <i>Luke Cage</i>'s revolutionary acts

"The politics of the ’60s are right in your face": Cheo Hodari Coker on Luke Cage's revolutionary acts

Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images, Graphic: Allison Corr

When Marvel’s Luke Cage premiered in 2016, it was met with much excitement and hope, in part because Mike Colter had made a hell of a first impression in season one of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. But as the Black Lives Matter movement grew, a black superhero, one who’s bulletproof, resonated for reasons beyond the page and screen.

The series wasn’t able to avoid the midseason downturn that’s plagued every one of the individual Defender series, but season two, which is now out on Netflix, is both stronger and faster—just like Luke. But whether the tune-up Luke got last season helps him in his fight against the mysterious Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), or his renewed struggle against Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) remains to be seen.

Ahead of the premiere, The A.V. Club spoke with showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker about how the show remains revolutionary, the role that ’90s dancehall played in season two, and why he’ll never tire of telling the story of a black man who’s impervious to bullets.

This interview discusses plot points from Luke Cage season two. Turn back now if you haven’t finished watching. 

The A.V. Club: What was behind the decision to make John McIver a.k.a Bushmaster one of the main antagonists for season two?

Cheo Hodari Coker: Well, it was a couple of things. Iva, who’s Mike Colter’s wife, threw a surprise birthday party for him. I was there, Alfre [Woodard] was there, [Luke Cage writer] Charles Murray and a few other friends that kind of came together at the last minute. And the thing that was funny about that party was, it was really mellow. There was no DJ or anything like that. So, what Mike did is that, once he got over the surprise of “happy birthday, here we are,” is that he basically did a Spotify playlist—either that or one of those services where you basically put a name of an artist and then all the songs thematically spin off from there. So, I think he put in Shabba Ranks and nothing but ’90s dancehall played the entire party, and it had this incredible vibe. It really reminded me of back in the day.

And so, that was put in motion—like, it would be really interesting explore Jamaican culture for season two. Because, if season two was about the “Wu-Tangification” of the Marvel Universe, season two was about the roots of hip-hop. When you delve into the musical roots of hip-hop, you get funk and R&B, the extension of the blues tradition, and you get reggae. Because Kool Herc, one of the founding DJs, was Jamaican, and he brought the whole concept of the sound system to the South Bronx. And so, I wanted a villain that we could explore that with. And looking through the coterie of Luke Cage villains, we came across Bushmaster, who has Luke’s powers—at least in the comics his powers come directly from the [Dr. Noah] Burstein process, which we weren’t able to do for a lot of reasons. But the thing was, one of the things in his file that I found really interesting is they said he’s from a small Caribbean island. And so I said, “Okay, this is perfect. We’ll make him from Jamaica.” And once we were able to figure out the backstory of how he and the Stokeses were linked, the entire season galvanized.

We were lucky enough that we had someone in Bushmaster, in Mustafa Shakir, who had both the charisma, the physical brawn, and the pathos to have a character that would have the inevitable job of matching up with Cottonmouth. Because, make no mistake, even though we killed Cottonmouth season one, he still haunts the show. Every other comment is, “Where’s Cottonmouth? Why Cottonmouth?” Or, “Bring Cottonmouth back. We don’t care how you do it. Do it. He could be a zombie. Bring him back.” But, the whole thing was, we wanted somebody who doesn’t replace Cottonmouth by any means, but I really think he’s going to be a villain that people talk about, that people love the same way that people still talk about Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.

AVC: Cottonmouth’s presence is definitely felt throughout the season, as are Mariah’s mixed feelings about her cousin. And when Luke’s dad James Lucas shows up, Luke has conflicting feelings, too. How do these stories tie into the show’s overall exploration of family and legacy?

CHC: The phrase, “Family first. Always” resonates in season one. It’s the thing that Ma Mabel says to Cottonmouth after he kills Uncle Pete, and it’s a phrase that’s repeated between Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard a couple of times. And, thematically, it comes back in season two, because we now know what happened between Luke and Diamondback, and what happened between James Lucas and his wife and church secretary—it’s a legacy thing. Because he had two kids that grew up not knowing they were brothers, but once they did, became antagonists because one of them felt so bad about how his mother was mistreated and how he was abandoned by a father that never loved him. We wanted to deal with the ramifications by introducing that father in season two, and find ourselves emotionally torn because as much as we might have wanted to have hated Luke’s father in season one, you know, in season two, we see there’s two sides to every story. Only this time, it’s Luke who’s really dealing with it.

Mustafa Shakir
Mustafa Shakir
Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)

It’s interesting seeing Luke reconcile that path and at the same time saying, “You messed me up in ways that you could never imagine, but I have to find my way towards forgiveness because we have unfinished business.” But we also see how his anger over his father suddenly being around spills over into his relationship with Claire, so he can’t walk away from it. Then there’s Bushmaster, who’s also fighting with a family legacy after the murder of his father, and knowing the Stokeses are responsible for it. Not only that, but his mother’s death, too! And of course, Mariah Dillard is haunted by the question, is she a Stokes or is she a Dillard? And realizing, not only is she a Stokes, but what that fully means in terms of embracing both her cousin’s and her grandmother’s full criminal legacy when she finally does. And when she does, not only is it electrifying, it’s horrifying. It really comes together in episode 10 when she decides to take revenge on what happened to her brownstone in the most horrific way possible.

So, what we’re trying to say about family is that family is important, family is complicated. Because you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, and your family, depending on who you are, can define you. It doesn’t have to, but in many cases, particularly when you’re dealing with drama, it does.

AVC: When we talk about where we’re from, we’re really talking about two things: people, as in family, as well as our hometown or neighborhood. And the show does a great job of showing how complicated our relationships are with both.

CHC: Well, the thing is, so much of the African American experience is about the redefinition of roots because of slavery. We were uprooted and there’s so much about our whole legacy that was stolen and that we lost in the Transatlantic slave trade that we’ll never find out. And so, so much of our history is about, okay, since we landed, depending where you ended up, what have you made of yourself in that place and what does that mean?

We end up creating new tribes, because we can’t necessarily... many of us can’t get specific in terms of, okay, were you this or were you that tribe? But you can know you’re from South Carolina, or South Central Los Angeles. Or you know, you say, “I’m from Detroit” or, “My people are from Roanoke, Virginia.” So, it’s like, where you come from and what that means once you got there and how fared all of a sudden take on a different meaning than their original meaning.

Illustration for article titled &quot;The politics of the ’60s are right in your face&quot;: Cheo Hodari Coker on Luke Cage&#39;s revolutionary acts
Photo: David Lee (Netflix)

So it doesn’t really matter whether you’re telling a family history, a crime history, anything else. When you’re dealing with African Americans, family is everything. Because we spend so much time talking about how one treats one’s family. Telling a black person that you haven’t talked to your mother in a week is probably different than it is with other races because people will look at you different. It’s all about when you explain things. People have a certain understanding. I can’t really explain it, but it’s—we’re always about family legacies and who someone’s from and what church they belong to. It becomes this whole thing, whether it’s all these different organizations like fraternities, sororities, the Boulé. It always comes back to who are your people. Period.

AVC: You’ve described individual seasons of the show as “visual albums.” What reference—visual, musical, or otherwise—had the biggest influence on the new episodes?

CHC: There really wasn’t any one specific thing. When I say that the show was like a conscious album with dialogue, it’s just me emphasizing the music, whether it’s Adrian [Younge] and Ali [Shaheed Muhammad]’s score, or the needle drops that I picked very specifically, like “Night Nurse” in the first episode or the Nina Simone song, “He Needs Me,” that I use underneath the first intimate scene that you see with Shades and Mariah. I’m just saying that I’ve planned a lot of the moments of the show around the music, not vice versa. So, there are a lot of influences.

You see, for me, for example, the thing is that I sequence the show the way that people would sequence an album. It starts for me when I basically pick thematic song titles. This season was Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, where last season was Gang Starr. And then, from there you basically just say, “Okay let’s walk our characters through these scenarios.” Then occasionally you are in this magic moment where the scenario that you are walking them through kind of matches the theme of whatever title you picked.

For example, “For Pete’s Sake,” episode nine, has the revelation that Uncle Pete was the one who molested Mariah. Not only that, but is really the father of her child. Does that have anything to do with the song or the content of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s song? Absolutely not. It’s just like, not a trick, but it’s one of those things where sometimes those ironies will match up with your characters. Or you’ll have something like “The Creator,” which I believe is episode 11, and that’s the episode, of course, when we get into the origins of Bushmaster in terms of how he got his powers. Or you have something like “All Souled Out,” which as a song has nothing to do with selling out but that’s the episode where Luke ostensibly sells out to loaning himself out to Piranha because he needs the money because of the lawsuit. So, you kind of have these moments and you kind of pick scenes, but then at the same time you are also looking for these great musical moments because the music really has to match the action.

Alfre Woodard
Alfre Woodard
Photo: Cara Howe (Netflix)

So for me, it was like having the perfect song underneath the Luke Cage/Iron Fist warehouse fight in episode 10. It has to be perfect. It has to really match up because some people will say, “Oh, well if you’re gonna Wu-Tang inside the Marvel Universe you can just use any Wu-Tang and that’s gonna work.” No, it has to be the right Wu-Tang song. Otherwise, you don’t do it.

AVC: The first season had such a powerful and relevant message right from the start—you have this bulletproof black man who represents strength, but he also wears a hoodie, which is a piece of clothing that now evokes this moment of horrible injustice, as well as vulnerability. How has that message evolved in the second season?

CHC: Well, the hoodie is still around, but we deal with politics just by existing successfully. Because there’s no way as an African American in this society, particularly with this president, where you’re not constantly reminded of how far you’ve come but at the same time how much still needs to change. Regardless of politics, for me, the line in the sand with Donald Trump was Charlottesville. There was no such thing as good people on both sides. There was the Klan and there were people that were basically... that poor woman that got killed for nothing. And all those things that happened in that one spot, it’s like we’re in this place where the politics of the ’60s are right in your face constantly. So, it isn’t a question of necessarily dealing with it thematically in the show as much as it is depicting reality as it is. So, there’s always a certain subtext.

The thing about the hoodie, when we were evoking Trayvon Martin and we basically were saying that just because somebody is wearing a hoodie and they’re black doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a thug, but they could be a superhero, is what we were saying with that. Not that just somebody could be anybody but they could be somebody extraordinary. So, on one hand, you can’t put a negative symbol on us. We’re gonna always try to flip that symbol into something else. And what’s been interesting to see since the show came out is, the hoodie is always gonna be politically charged, but there are people that wear the hoodie and—I remember there was this video online of this guy that was wearing the hoodie proudly and he said it was because he’d seen Luke Cage and it gave him a sense of pride.

Simone Missick and Mike Colter
Simone Missick and Mike Colter
Photo: David Lee

I will always get a certain thrill of watching bullets bounce off Luke Cage. And, I remember I told this story before of being in a production meeting with somebody who was saying, “Oh, we’re gonna have Luke get shot again, right? It’s gonna be like ... is it gonna get boring to the audience? He’s bulletproof.” And I just remember saying, “I will never get tired of seeing a bulletproof black man.” And the reason for that is so many of my heroes were not bulletproof, be it Malcolm X, be it Martin Luther King, be it Biggie, be it Tupac, be it Big L. We can go on and on about people that should be here but aren’t because they weren’t bulletproof. And the fact that you have somebody like Luke Cage, no matter what you do with Luke Cage, whether you’re trying to be political or not, when bullets bounce off him, it’s a revolutionary act.

AVC: Luke spends the season becoming more comfortable with his powers, and by the end, is in a literal vantage point inside of Harlem’s Paradise. What does embracing his powers mean for the character going forward?

CHC: Well, yes, his power came from his experiment, but for him the power was always a curse. It came from a prison experiment, but it wasn’t like he deserved to be in prison. He was framed and he was put in prison, and he was put in prison because his father not only had a child out of wedlock, but lied about where that child came from. Alienated that child, who became the villain that ended up putting Luke in that place and that experiment in the first place. Also, what stems from that is Luke meeting Reva, who turned out was part of the experiment and then she ends up getting murdered as well. So, from Luke’s standpoint, if he didn’t have his powers, a lot of people that he would care about —Reva, Pop, and all those different butterfly ripple effects—would not have happened. So, he’s always viewed his power as a curse, which is why he’s so reluctant to use his powers in the first place. Because he didn’t ask for them, he didn’t want them, and they come from a place of pain.

But, now it’s different because now all of a sudden, he’s defeated all of his enemies and the surprise about the club is there’s no delusion like self-delusion. He really feels that from this perch he’ll be able to best protect Harlem. But, then his closest allies are seeing the change and they don’t like what they see. I mean, his closest confidant ends up being Sugar, a guy that almost got thrown out of a window at the end of episode one. Probably one of my favorite lines in the entire season is Luke looking at D.W. and saying, “I’m gonna make Harlem great again.” And [D.W.’s] like, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe... Luke Trump.” He’s like, “What the hell is he thinking?”

Finn Jones and Mike Colter
Finn Jones and Mike Colter
Photo: David Lee (Netflix)

It was interesting writing the finale—the way it was written was that Luke was gonna be torn looking out on the balcony and looking out from the perch. And, you were gonna see the conflict of, “I’m here and I didn’t mean to end up here, but here I am.” But Mike didn’t play that at all. Mike said, “You know what? I’m not taping that.” Not in a defiant way. He just had a different interpretation and ultimately, I think it puts him in a really interesting place because he was having to stop his life up there. He was proving the point that Mariah was making in that he’s gonna be changed by this club. Nobody who stands on this perch is not changed by this. And it just puts this in a very interesting place in terms of how power corrupts. Can Power Man still be righteous or is he now going to use those powers to be a gangster? Because being bulletproof might be the least powerful thing about him. Same way he always tells Danny [Rand], “The least powerful thing about you is that fist.”

AVC: Since you mentioned Danny Rand, the first season of Iron Fist got some mixed reactions, so did you have any concerns about incorporating the character into the second season of Luke Cage?

CHC: Not at all. I mean, for me, it was a challenge that we asked for—no one suggested that we put Iron Fist in our season. It’s something that we wanted to do. Because the thing is, like I said before, I was arrogant enough to think that Iron First within our universe was gonna be different than anywhere else and that we were going to be able to restore the kind of chemistry that those characters historically have in the comics. And also, remixed it with a certain level of swagger. I think Iron Fist in our show works great. I always love it when people kind of have a certain level of, “Nah, that’s not gonna work,” and then when they see it, they’re like, “Whoa!” And so, it’s the same kind of thing. I really wanted that challenge of let’s see what we can do with Iron Fist and see if we can have something that will subvert all expectations and have people talking about it so that by the end of it, they’re going be demanding Heroes For Hire. And I thought that [writer] Akela Cooper, with that episode, just did an incredible job. She also wrote the pivotal and still controversial “death of Cottonmouth” episode. Episode 10 is really one of my favorite episodes and that fight, I mean, I’ll take credit for picking the Wu-Tang song. It galvanized in an incredible way, I thought.