Of the 40-plus new shows premiering this fall, none arrives with higher expectations or stakes than Marvel’s Luke Cage. It’s the third Netflix-Marvel collaboration, after Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and it’s the first live-action superhero series to star an African American actor.
Making its debut in a year of boiling racial politics, Luke Cage is the story of a reluctant superhero, endowed with extraordinary strength and bulletproof skin, who takes on violence in the streets and corruption in the government—threats far more relatable than the alien hordes and sentient robots invading other superhero franchises. The series is loaded with allusions to black culture (the Harlem Renaissance, Jackie Robinson, Walter Mosley, the Tuskegee experiments, Malcolm X, Roots), but the most pervasive influence is the crop of swaggering crime thrillers, including Super Fly and Foxy Brown, that grew into their own genre in the 1970s.
“I hate the term blaxploitation; it’s black empowerment,” says Luke Cage show runner Cheo Hodari Coker. “Blaxploitation was a black man asserting himself in a cinematic world, kicking ass and getting the girl, being able to do the same thing as Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin. Luke Cage comes from that. The way I thought to do the character was to take that attitude and modernize it.”
Marvel Comics created Luke Cage in 1972 as the story of a streetwise crime fighter in the mold of Shaft and Black Caesar, films with strong black men who take care of the little guy and look good in leather jackets. Cage-featuring titles Hero for Hire and The Defenders are dated as much by their headbands and disco blouses as they are by racial stereotypes. A lot had to change for him to survive the 21st century—a time when shows such as Empire, Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat are gaining popularity outside their demographic borders, and the announcement of future blockbusters Black Panther and Captain Marvel hints at new levels of inclusiveness in mainstream entertainment.
I hate the term blaxploitation; it’s black empowerment.
This Cage is still cool and still a bruiser, but now he reads Ralph Ellison and Malcolm Gladwell. “Black men in this country, particularly with the fact that they’re systematically hunted, have a lot to be angry about,” Coker says. “But Luke Cage is very measured, and he doesn’t act impulsively. He has strong opinions, but he has a sense of humor. He has a charm that women go crazy for, and there’s a philosophical side of him that thinks about the world.”
Cage made his live-action debut last year, as Jessica Jones’s love interest and fellow crime fighter. Between the end of that show’s first season and the beginning of Luke Cage, he has moved some 70 blocks north from Hell’s Kitchen to lie low and work off-book for an old friend who runs a Harlem barbershop. The quiet life doesn’t last long.
Adds Coker, “In the first episode, one of the villains says, ‘He’s about to bring it.’ Luke says, ‘Not the way I want to. I’d kill you.’ He realizes his strength, his power, and he’s judicious about how he beats the shit out of these guys. He’s in control of himself.”
The main villains are revamps of original characters that would scare the hell out of today’s guardians of political correctness: Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a butterfly-collared pimp in the 1970s comics, is reimagined by Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) as a menacing crime lord who runs Harlem’s Paradise nightclub, where much of the series is set. Black Mariah, a 400-pound racketeer and drug dealer in the comics, is now Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard, of Desperate Housewives), a corrupt and fucking scary Harlem councilwoman. And Cage? In the hands of six-foot-three, 250-pound actor Mike Colter, he’s also thoroughly of our time—but he retains his original superpower.
“We were in a production meeting, and someone asked if we should do something different than having the bullets bounce off Luke—that it might look like a shtick,” Coker recalls. He disagreed: “I never get tired of seeing a bulletproof black man. That image of power is important to show that you can have a black superhero. I wanted the show to be unapologetically black, but there’s nothing to apologize for.”