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When Luke Cage first went into production, the series’ showrunner and star had no idea just how important the comic book show would be.
Netflix’s third Marvel series (after Daredevil and Jessica Jones) centers around titular superhero Luke Cage (Mike Colter), an African-American ex-con with bulletproof skin and superhuman strength living in Harlem. Given all the violent, gun-related encounters happening between police and black men all over the country recently, Luke Cage is striking a chord with fans as was evidenced by the standing ovation during the show’s Comic-Con panel in July. During the panel, executive producer Cheo Coker said that “the world is ready for a bulletproof black man,” and the audience responded enthusiastically.
When The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Coker after the Comic-Con panel, he admitted that he didn’t realize just how much people responded to his words at the time.
“You know what’s funny is that we couldn’t really see the audience,” Coker tells THR. “I could only see the first three rows, and then because of the sound, the speakers were so loud broadcasting our voices out and I was just trying to focus on everything that [moderator] Jeph [Loeb] was saying, trying not to show that I was nervous. So I’m ecstatic that people responded the way that they did. And not even just to the trailer, but the response to some of the things we said on the panel was cool.”
Even though Luke Cage is, at its core, a comic book show, Coker strongly believes it can have an impact on public opinion about human inequity in the real world, especially looking at what’s happening in the country today.
“With what’s going on with all these shootings, superheroes have always arisen during times of conflict, when people felt helpless,” Coker says. “For example, if you look at the history of Superman and the emergence of Captain America during World War II, during periods of American history when people felt disempowered, disenfranchised, that was the function of superheroes. Basically, to look at world events and what’s happening in society through the prism of someone that, with their powers, is able to make changes while at the same time, also be entertaining.”
Coker believes that the superhero genre is actually an extension and update of classic Westerns.
“When you get to modern history, people aren’t riding horses anymore and superheroes kind of overtook Westerns in that regard,” Coker says. “Although Westerns have been around for 70 years and we’ll have to see what happens with superheroes. But what I’m saying is that [the comic book genre] was meeting both things. Yes, you have this whole thing that’s going on in the world but at the same time, just on a superhero level. You’re only beginning to see more African-American superheroes. It’s the confluence of both.”
But according to both Coker and Colter, it’s mere coincidence that Luke Cage comes during a time of such social unrest.
“It’s going on a couple years now since this whole process started and it’s been over a year since me and Cheo first had a conversation,” Colter says. “I don’t think, at the time [when production began], that we knew it was timely. I don’t think we ever thought it would be this timely. It’s just … wow. It couldn’t be more timely.”
Regardless of timing, Coker always knew that the issues at the center of the Marvel series were important and needed to be represented.
“The show is really about what happens when, in this world where people are afraid to speak out because if you look at what’s happening in real life in any community of color that are facing these issues, when you have people that break the law and the whole thing of not snitching which is true of any community that deals with this, how does that change when you introduce a bulletproof element?” Coker says. “How do both police enforcement and criminal enforcement change when you introduce a character who can’t be swayed by normal means? How does that affect everything and what is the ripple effect of that?”
He continues, “Season one of Luke Cage is partially about that, but it’s also about the evolution of why does somebody become a hero in the first place? And in becoming a hero, what does it take? Why does somebody do it, because it’s a thankless job? And ultimately, what do they realize about themselves when they do that?”
And while Colter didn’t necessarily think about the real-world connections in Luke Cage at first, recently he started to understand the importance of bringing this bulletproof character to life.
“Let’s be honest, in the world that we’re living in right now, I watched a video the other day of a black ‘suspect,’ and he wasn’t even really a suspect, laying down on the ground with his hands up in the air and they still shot him,” Colter says, shaking his head. “You’re trying to process it. You’re trying to figure out what does it take to not be shot, to not be a threat, to not be deemed as someone who is suspicious or someone who is someone you should pull your gun on and shoot, perhaps. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
The video Colter is referencing was from a shooting in North Miami, where a police officer shot a man laying down with his hands in the air next to an autistic man playing with a toy truck in the middle of the street. The incident was not captured on video, but there is a recording of the moments before the shooting occurred that clearly showed both men were unarmed.
“I tried to process it because I’m a fair person. I try to look at things from an outside-the-box kind of way and try to add up the pieces,” Colter says. “One guy is sitting down playing with a toy truck and one guy is laying down with his hands up in the air and still, a shot rang out from a distance from someone who thought they were under threat. I couldn’t process it. I’m still trying to process it. But as I’m playing this superhero who is bulletproof, I say to myself that it’s like a symbol.”
He continues, “We all feel vulnerable, and as much as Cage would not like to have these powers that he has, he has been imbued with these powers and abilities and he has to own them. And whether he wants to deal with this or not, the time has come to not only use his powers to help the community and society and everyone, but also use it to speak out because he has that ability. He doesn’t have to fear ramifications like other people who fear for their life. He is vulnerable, yes, there are things that can hurt him. But not bullets. So he speaks up when he has to, and right now, that’s more of a symbol than anything else. And wow, what a refreshing thought, that you can actually say what you what to say and not be shot and not have to worry about getting hurt.”
Luke Cage season one will stream in its entirety beginning Friday, Sept. 30 on Netflix.
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