When Cheo Hodari Coker adapted the superhero comic “Luke Cage” for television, he was deliberately creating a bulletproof black man who would resonate today.
"Luke Cage" follows mild-mannered Cage, who gains superhuman strength and unbreakable skin after a science experiment goes wrong. The Netflix show is based on the Marvel comic book that got its start in the early 1970s.
Cheo Hodari Coker first read the comics when he was a kid growing up in Connecticut. He later went on to become a music journalist at the Los Angeles Times and eventually became a writer and a producer on shows including "Southland" and "Ray Donovan."
He's now the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series "Luke Cage." The Frame's John Horn spoke with Coker about the origins of the superhero and the modern relevance the show has today.
To hear the full conversation click the play button at the top of the page.
On how the Luke Cage comics were inspired by “Shaft”:
You have to really kind of go back to the history of Marvel Comics. The Marvel office was close to 42nd Street. Forty-second Street, if you know New York, is at the edge of or part of Hell's Kitchen. That's why Daredevil's from Hell's Kitchen, because it's the closest neighborhood to the office for the young writers and artists of Marvel Comics.
So as a result, they're walking to work every day, they're on 42nd Street, which back then was exploitation movies and porno. So they're seeing the popularity of "Shaft." They're seeing the popularity of "Super Fly." They're like, hey, we don't have a Marvel equivalent to this. We don't really have any black superheroes. "Shaft" is popular. Let's just do our version of "Shaft." So they come up with Luke Cage. So Luke kind of had that same attitude.
For me, I never saw blaxploitation as being anything to not be proud of. All it really is honestly, it's really a reaction. It's Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks and Gordon Parks Jr. saying that, Look, we're going to give an African American character the same kind of shots and the same kind of experiences that you get to see Sean Connery and Lee Marvin and John Wayne and Steve McQueen get. And we're just going to do it in a black context.
On the importance of setting "Luke Cage" in Harlem:
Imagine Washington D.C. and Vegas rolled up into one place because you have these figures of politics like Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Charlie Rangel that have always been the cornerstone of black politics. At the same time, you also have legendary criminal figures like Nicky Barnes, Frank Lucas — who Denzel Washington played in the movie "American Gangster."
And then at the same time you have the music. This is the place where the Cotton Club existed. This is the place where the Apollo Theater and so many musical movements [happened]. You put all of those things together and you modernize it and you talk about gentrification and you put a bulletproof superhero in all of that — no matter where you put the camera, no matter what scenario you walk through, there's going to be some relevance and some interest.
On Luke Cage’s superhero costume being a hoodie:
Of course I wanted there to be a subtle, or in this case, not so subtle nod to what one faces as a black man in society wearing a hood. Unfortunately, what happens is that people will make assumptions about who you are based on that hoodie and that's the whole thing. I wanted to show that heroes could wear hoodies, too. I don't care what your socioeconomic status is, if you're a black man in a hoodie, you can be misinterpreted.
So that's what struck with Trayvon Martin and that's why it haunted so many African American men and women, particularly African American men that are fathers. This kid was in his own neighborhood and this kid was literally trying to get home and it wasn't even a cop. It was basically a neighborhood vigilante that killed him.
It struck so many of us because then we were like, What do I tell my kids? How do I tell you how to go about going out in this world where wearing the wrong clothes? And not even in a gang situation. Just literally the act of wearing something that makes somebody assume a stereotype puts your life in danger. That's the kind of frustration of all of it honestly.
On how Luke Cage’s superpower as a bulletproof black man is relevant today:
What it means to me is kind of wish fulfillment because superheroes to a certain extent are always wish fulfillment. One could say that Captain America and Superman were reactions to WWII and fascism and what was happening in terms of having something that could symbolize American heroism to a certain extent.
I don't necessarily want to put that same mantle on Luke Cage but at the same time, it's like, so many black people that were heroes to me certainly weren't bulletproof. Not Martin Luther King. Not Malcolm X. Not Medgar Evers. Not —even on a hip-hop level — Biggie and Tupac.
So the notion of what it's like to have a hero that's bulletproof and how that would change a neighborhood and how both the police as well as villains would react to that, it has a significance that I think goes beyond just the kind of superhero/supervillain of it all.
But at the same time, that's what's so cool about the show is like it's there, but we never deal with it so specifically that you lose sight of the fact that you're watching a cool-ass superhero show.
"Luke Cage" debuts on Netflix on September 30. For more of The Frame, get the podcast on iTunes.