"Luke Cage" star Mike Colter: "If I was a little boy today, I'd fantasize about being able to be shot and not be killed"

Salon talks to Mike Colter and "Luke Cage" creator Cheo Hodari Coker about the importance of black superheroes

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published October 4, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

Mike Colter in "Luke Cage"   (Netflix/Myles Aronowitz)
Mike Colter in "Luke Cage" (Netflix/Myles Aronowitz)

In a widely quoted exchange from “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” a woman in need of the hero’s assistance asks him, “Don’t you need a gun?” To this Luke confidently replies, “I am the gun.”

Said conversation occurs a few episodes into Netflix’s latest entry into its Marvel superhero universe, and by that point the viewer is well-aware that the man is not exaggerating. Luke’s impenetrable skin deflects bullets like an M1 tank knocks away hail pellets, and his fists slam back just as hard. Standard superhero fare, except for the context.

Luke Cage eschews capes and masks, wearing hoodies instead. He doesn’t have any special weapons or vehicles, only his hands and his will. Luke also is an African American man living in the present day, meaning the nature of his existence holds special significance to viewers and popular culture.

That is not lost on series creator Cheo Hodari Coker and the drama’s star, Mike Colter. Even so, while “Luke Cage” was in production, Coker and Colter trained their focus upon making a series that celebrates Black culture and style via the adventures of an unforgettable African American superhero. The character dates back to 1972 and has undergone a number of updates since. Rarely has he felt more relevant, and important, than in his current incarnation.

Eventually Luke Cage will team up with Daredevil, Jessica Jones (whose series introduced the character) and Iron Fist for Netflix’s yet-to-be-scheduled “Defenders” miniseries, preceded by the release of “Iron Fist” on March 17, 2017.

Recently Salon spoke with Coker and Colter about what Luke Cage represents to viewers, as well as the heavy influence that music and culture played in creating the unique tone of the series, which premiered last Friday. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s important that you’re doing a show like this, in light of the debate about the relationship between law enforcement and black men. Everything that we've been seeing in this past few years has been happening all along. And we'll talk about that in a bit. But what really struck me about watching “Luke Cage” is how much this series depicts so many beautiful aspects of black life.

Cheo Hodari Coker: Well, I've said this before, I wanted to show how being at least culturally, unapologetically black didn't mean that you had something to apologize for. We're going to throw you deep into the cultural end of the pool. For example, when you're entering “Goodfellas” or “Mean Streets,” Martin Scorsese is opening you up to a side of New York Italian life that you hadn't seen before.

When you're with Woody Allen at Elaine's in “Manhattan” or, you know, Spike Lee, in terms of what he did with Brooklyn in “Do the Right Thing,” that's another aspect of life.

At the same time also, because Marvel characters live in the real world, what is life like outside of Hell's Kitchen? Harlem is such an incredible place because there's so much history and so much culture, but at the same time you get such a mix of experiences. I very much wanted the character to live in that world.

I very much wanted people to kind of experience something that they might not have seen before but do it in a way that was more subtle than other approaches – something that was a lot more intricate. Because as much as this is going to be called a hip-hop series, I mean, we've got Nina Simone, you know? We've got Penny Jackson, Faith Evans.

You can see that music is in every aspect of the show, from that huge Biggie Smalls portrait in Cottonmouth’s office to just about everything else. There’s true visualization of all the music in the series.

Mike Colter: Don't forget, we have some soul in there.

Coker:  For me, everything starts musically. You know, Chuck D always called hip-hop black people’s CNN. I like showing how, as the music evolves, it also talks about or is systemic about what's going on in the world.

We do it in a way where it's in your face, but it never feels aggressive. People are going to re-watch these episodes. I think the more they re-watch them, they're going to find so much different nuance.

Mike, here you’re playing a superhero who does not want to be seen, and his moral compass leads him to struggle with that idea. That’s not new. But it’s interesting [in] what moves his choice to act versus just remaining under the radar.

Colter: It couldn't be more ideal that this superhero was averse to wanting to take the spotlight because I struggle with that in this business. You know, it's nice to be recognized, but at the same time there are always consequences. You may get fame, but you lose anonymity. You lose a certain sense of who you are.

Luke is a smart guy. Luke is a thoughtful person who thinks about the big picture. For him, he knows where this leads, and he's not certain that he wants to be there.

He doesn't want to share the fact that he has this power. He'd rather not. He'd rather just get rid of the powers or just not let anybody know he has them. So he's struggling and [it's] not until his back is pushed against the wall that he says, "OK, I gotta do something, and I wish I had done something sooner because it's cost me so much."

Let’s circle back to the idea of this series representing a reflection or a distillation of what's going on in our culture. Cheo, how much did that idea influence you when you were writing it? And Mike, how much did it play into your performance of it?

Coker: All right, so imagine a world where both H.G. Wells' Invisible Man and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man exist simultaneously. One is literally, Invisible Man — invisibility, superpowers. The other is what Ralph Ellison was using: race as a metaphor, in terms of how you can be a part of the fabric of this country, but —

Colter: Don't matter.

Coker: — at the same time, you don't matter. You're not a part of everything. Really, this show, to a certain extent, does both. It's because we're not really a show that's about cultural identity, but we deal with it. We're not really just a superhero show, but we are about superheroes. I think a lot of what this is is that. It's really more about, Why does anybody want to be a hero? Because it's a thankless job. At the very least, that was always kind of the joke from the Luke Cage comics. He was always Luke Cage, hero for hire. That was the whole thing.

Colter: “Pay me.”

Coker: “If I'm going to do all this, I got to get paid.” We didn't want to start with that. We wanted to start with, How does somebody become a hero? How does someone accept this mantle? What are the responsibilities of it? In doing that, moving forward, if we do get the chance to explore it even deeper, then we can start talking about a lot of what Mike is talking about: What comes with celebrity? What comes with the responsibility of everybody having their hand out? Or, like the character said, when Melissa introduced Luke Cage in "Jessica Jones," everyone either has their hands out, or a noose.

Colter: You're a freak.

Coker: So it’s that notion of just wanting to just be left alone. I mean that was kind of one of my favorite things that we said in the first episode: "What if my ambition is just to wash dishes and be left the hell alone?" The fact that Pop, [who is played by Frankie Faison,] says, "Well, it'd be a waste."

It's really about saying like, if you have these powers, then you should use them for the betterment of the community. It's something that every black celebrity faces. It's something that every black athlete faces. It's what somebody who, in any community, if you're looking around at things not changing, and you have the power to change it, you face this kind of question like "Am I really going to take this on?"

We had to create a situation where Luke would finally say, “I can't sit back anymore. I've got to do something.” That push would propel him into the rest of the Marvel universe.

Mike, let's talk about your body language in the show. Luke is invulnerable. There are so many scenes when he's taking a lot of gunfire —

Colter: Yeah.

— and he's standing there, chest out, as if to say, “Let's just get this over with.”

Colter: Yeah. Hurry up and unload your weapon.

There must be awareness here that people are going to be watching this and seeing that here's an invulnerable black man, who is the center of this, in this time when we have seen so much evidence of not just vulnerability, but this shattering of that idea. In those scenes, in those moments, what informed your performance?

Colter: This goes back to me not knowing a whole lot about Luke Cage going into it.

It serves anyone when they're going into some project to try to distance themselves from the material, so you can really have an objective viewpoint. When I came into it I tried to peel back the layers to try to figure out, well, Who is this guy? For me, Luke's powers are just a matter of being, just a matter of fact.

It's kind of chilling sometimes, I think. Especially in the time we're in now, it makes your hair stand up on your arm when you think about the fact that — I'll bring this up again: [Recently], a black man [Alton Sterling] is laying on his back, hands up, still gets shot.

What do we have to do to not be a target? And for finally someone to say it's not OK to shoot someone just because you are afraid of them because you don't know them and you're not familiar with their race. If you have these issues, then we need to talk, but this is not OK.

For me, when I look at a person like Luke, who has this kind of power . . . he's still discovering what he can do. But he knows bullets can't hurt him. For him it's just a matter of fact. Someone shooting Luke is like someone spitting on him. He doesn't feel it; it doesn't really matter. For him, that's just how he approaches it. Because the audience is the audience, and because of the world we live in today, it means something. It's symbolic. It doesn't mean to Luke what it means to the audience.

When I was a kid, I fantasized about picking cars up and maybe flying or something like that. Where if I was a little boy today, I'd fantasize about being able to be shot and not be killed. That's scary, but that's the world we're in today.

Coker: Bulletproof invulnerability isn't news. Superman, from the time he was introduced, not just in terms of the comic book, but also just in terms of the original TV series in the '40s, had that power. The thing is, I think when you see it with a black character, it's not that you're adding a social context to it. It's just that what's happening in the world adds that to it.

Colter: Yeah.

Coker: At ComicCon, when I said the world is ready for a bulletproof black man . . . it wasn't just about what's happening in the world. It's also from the fact of seeing another type of superhero, seeing the fact that we have some kind of representation — particularly with black men, who are so disempowered. The fact that you have an empowered one, and a responsible one, and getting to explore all the possibilities of that dramatically. That's also what it means. It means the world is ready to see black superheroes and their stories told with the same level of sophistication and depth as you get with Batman — as you get with Iron Man, as you get with anybody else.

My whole thing was, yes, the show has flavor, but we're not so lost in the flavor that we don't have a show to stand on.

I'm just so excited for people to really get into it and debate it and get into all the different questions because I think it's really rich. I can't wait for people to kind of get the full realm.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Biggie Smalls Cheo Hodari Coker Hip-hop Marvel's Luke Cage Mike Colter Netflix Reader Polls Tv