When Cheo Hodari Coker went to pitch his idea for a Luke Cage television series to Marvel, he brought with him two items: an action figure of the comic-book superhero and a photo of his grandfather. Coker envisioned Cage as a man much like the latter, a decorated U.S. soldier who flew with the Tuskegee Airmen. He told the studio’s head of TV that he wanted his version of the character to be an African American hero who does his job not just for the benefit of other black people, but for everyone.
Needless to say, Marvel liked the idea, and Luke Cage’s eagerly anticipated first season premieres Friday on Netflix. The show comes at a time when comic-book adaptations are everywhere, but very few feature black superheroes. Cage, played by Mike Colter, first made his Netflix debut in the series Jessica Jones as a supporting character and love interest for Jones. As the initial trailers for the show made it clear, Luke Cage was going to be ambitious both in terms of the issues it explored and the ways in which it would update its protagonist. Coker and his creative team looked to current events to ground Cage in reality from a specifically African American perspective.
“I saw an opportunity with this to tell a black story … that was sophisticated and forward-looking and at the same time had a sense of history,” Coker said. He wanted the show to fulfill his “comic-book geek sensibilities” while also digging into subjects such as police brutality, the gentrification of Harlem (where the show takes place), and even the privatization of prisons. One of the most powerful images from the show has been that of the bulletproof Cage in a hoodie beating up the bad guys under a hail of gunfire. The 1972 comic Luke Cage: Hero for Hire also told a distinctly black story—but it was shaped by very different cultural and social pressures that reveal how the original Cage and Coker’s hero are different avatars for their times.
In the 1970s, Cage’s costume wasn’t a hoodie but a metal headband, bracelets, and a chain-link belt—attire inspired by the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft are both most often credited as the first blaxploitation movies; both were also the rare films that featured African American directors and stars. Produced by studios looking to capitalize on black audiences, these movies tapped into a growing feeling of empowerment among many African Americans by presenting the first iconic big-screen black heroes. Characters in these films typically rebelled against the white establishment and were considered more or less antiheroes—especially significant following the turmoil of the 1960s and the civil-rights movement.
But blaxploitation movies did eventually face pushback from some in the African American community, including the Coalition Against blaxploitation, a movement formed by civil-rights groups including the NAACP and the National Urban League. One common complaint was that blaxploitation films painted black characters in a negative light: Movies were mostly set in inner-city environments and featured characters who were hardened criminals, sought casual sex, did or sold drugs, and used violence to achieve wealth and power.
Marvel, seeking to diversify its superhero universe and its readership in the early ’70s, looked to Hollywood for lessons. Three white writers, Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr., and George Tuska, drew on blaxploitation tropes to create a new kind of black comic-book character. The resulting series, Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, begins with its title character being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. While behind bars, he volunteers for a super-soldier-like experiment (one that bears similarities to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment) and escapes, relocating to Harlem and starting his own superhero business. With his newfound powers of super strength and bulletproof skin, Cage works to take down the criminal elements that plague his new home, fighting against mobsters such as Cottonmouth, a drug kingpin who has pointy snake-like fangs, and Black Mariah, whose gang used a stolen ambulance to steal dead bodies and the valuables that accompanied them.
Like its inspiration, the Luke Cage comics attracted controversy for playing into black stereotypes: The writers seemed to portray African Americans as caricatures, all the way from the pimp suits to Cage’s flashy costume to his “Hero for Hire” moniker, which implied that his noble actions came with a cost. As David Brothers wrote in a blog post for Marvel’s website, the original Cage “spoke with a funky type of jive, worked in the ghetto, and was a little edgier than a lot of other heroes … Cage is a hustler in the best possible sense of the word.”
As the popularity of blaxploitation started to wane, so did the original Luke Cage, which had been renamed Power Man in the mid ’70s. In an effort to save the series from cancelation, Marvel paired Cage with another crime-fighting hero, Danny Rand, for the Power Man and Iron Fist series. As the years went on and Cage evolved, there were more opportunities for black writers to build on the original comics. The writer David F. Walker and the artist Sanford Greene, for example, are currently producing a new version of Power Man and Iron Fist for Marvel. There’s a growing understanding in both the comic-book industry and in Hollywood about the importance of not only creating black stories, but also of giving more platforms to black storytellers.
Coker, of course, is fully aware of his protagonist’s origins. Though he was already a comic-book nerd, having grown up reading the works of Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, and John Byrne in the ’80s, Coker re-read as many of the original Cage comics as he could. With Cage, he knew he had a responsibility, much in the same way his grandfather did to show people what a complex black hero could be. Attempts in the last 10 years to bring African American comic-book superheroes to the big screen have led to supporting roles at best: James “Rhodey” Rhodes’s War Machine appeared in the Iron Man films, Falcon was introduced as Captain America’s sidekick in the two most recent Captain America films, and Black Panther made an extended cameo in Captain America: Civil War. Of course, there’s also the Blade movie series from the 1990s, starring Wesley Snipes as Marvel’s vampire-hunting superhero, but Coker’s Luke Cage is the first with a lead who gets to fully embrace his roots.
The show explores themes that are uncommon in mainstream entertainment, especially in the world of comic books. It delves into the subject of legacies and fatherhood as a way to address the incarceration of young black men, and the impact that American criminal-justice policies have had on black families. “Fatherhood is something that is personal to me because I didn’t grow up around my father,” Coker says, also acknowledging that the subject has universal appeal. The show features two characters in particular—Pops, a barber-shop owner who acts as a mentor to Cage, urging him to use his powers for good, and the main villain Cottonmouth, who’s raised by a violent mother figure in a crime family.
Fiction, including comic-book stories and television shows, allows people to think deeply about subjects they might want otherwise to avoid in real life, Coker says. “It’s much easier to talk about racism when you’re able to use mutants as a metaphor,” he explains. “People would much rather talk about Charles Xavier and Magneto than they would about Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.” His new series makes a deliberate effort to address some of these complex subjects in a way that the original comics didn’t, with the benefit of more than 40 years’ worth of artistic and historical insight. Coker said he sees his interpretation of Cage as more urban western than traditional blaxploitation—more in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film Unforgiven than the original Shaft. “The reason that people have been making westerns for a hundred years now,” he says, is because they’re “symbolic of the good and bad in all of us.”