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"A Love Letter To Black Women": Cheo Hodari Coker & The Gender Dynamics Of "Luke Cage"

The showrunner explains his approach to the Netflix series that is rewriting the race and gender dynamics of the Marvel Universe.

"A Love Letter To Black Women": Cheo Hodari Coker & The Gender Dynamics Of "Luke Cage"

[Photos: Myles Aronowitz, courtesy of Netflix]

Intersectionality is a beautiful thing. Since Luke Cage dropped last Friday on Netflix, critics and viewers have been abuzz about the first Marvel Studios TV series featuring an African-American superhero front and center. Luke Cage is a rarity in the comic book adaptation landscape—a cast that is overwhelmingly black and Latino, helmed by a black showrunner (Cheo Hodari Coker) and a writing staff that is equally inclusive (only two of the writers are white).

Coker, a former music journalist-turned-TV writer and producer, has crafted a show that is unforgivably steeped in black culture and has also given us one of the most feminist shows to come out this year. Don’t be mistaken, while the show is called Luke Cage, the women of this show are equal power players, complex and nuanced characters who aren’t just love interests or sidekicks. And for Coker, his specific depiction of women of color was crucial in his strategy to bring the series to life.

"Black women are the most passionate commentators, and even as black female geeks and nerds, they are rarely acknowledged. So this show is kind of a love letter to them." A love letter that quite frankly was long overdue—since the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (starting with Iron Man in 2008), black women have been glaringly absent from the landscape. This year, Captain America: Civil War featured the first black female character in a speaking role (played by Alfre Woodard) in the Marvel Studios/Disney MCU—not exactly groundbreaking in 2016. With Luke Cage, black women take centerstage with a diverse offering of characters such as NYPD detective Misty Knight and shady politician Mariah Dillard.

Co.Create spoke to Coker about the feminism of Luke Cage and how black women, both in front of and behind the camera, collaborated to bring his vision to life.

Co.Create: Women have really responded to the women on Luke Cage—was there a specific plan on how you wanted to depict the women on this show?

Cheo Hodari Coker: I don’t see female characters as different or inferior to male characters. When you have actresses of this caliber you want to build a world that feels real. In reality, black women, women of color are powerful, bold, dynamic, and self-assured, so there’s no reason their TV counterparts shouldn’t be as such.

Two of the writers on your team are black women, Akela Cooper and Aida Croal. What was the working relationship like?

We all brought different experiences into the writers’ room. You don’t want to regulate people by gender to only do gender-specific things. Our women writers are not only writing for Misty and Mariah, but writing dialogue for Luke as well. Akela and Aida were not recruited only to write for the women on the show. Akela actually wrote episode 12—she is a deep fan of action films. Aida cowrote the finale with me. People assume because I’m the guy I wrote all the action scenes, but Aida is a former boxer and that’s why you see the boxing metaphors in that episode.

One of the funniest and blackest moments in episode 8 is when Misty calls out her boss, Priscilla Ridley, for being chummy with Mariah because they’re both sorority sisters. We rarely see shows that mention black sororities. How did that scene come about?

Simone Missick, who plays Misty, actually ad-libbed the "ske-wee outta here" line. I didn’t do that to denigrate Deltas—my wife is a Delta. I have women in my family who are AKA’s (Alpha Kappa Alpha). Our production designer, Toni Barton, whose mother is a Delta, decided to add elephants to the décor of Mariah’s home, which is one of the symbols of the sorority. I wanted to show sophisticated black women and the kind of nuanced complexities of powerful black women like Mariah and Priscilla being sorors.

One of the things I was happy to see was Mariah Dillard being a fully realized, sexualized, middle-aged black woman. Hollywood tends to make older back women the desexualized mammy or caretaker.

Helen Mirren, Diahann Carroll, and Sophia Loren are women that manage to be ageless. Pam Grier could still get it. Alfre is such a beautiful woman, I didn’t want to exclude her sexuality, and it makes her such a dynamic character. Mariah becomes the Michael Corleone of the show, the reluctant criminal. When we meet Mariah, she is trying to escape the criminality of her family, but then she finds out she’s good at it. She becomes Mama Mabel, she becomes Black Mariah.

Misty’s character also has sexual agency. She meets Luke and has sex with him that same night, but she is never slut-shamed for that.

The thing about Misty is that she isn’t ashamed that she hooked up with Luke that same night; she beats herself up because she realizes she slept with a potential suspect. You’ll notice that Misty has the upper hand in her interaction with Luke. After they have sex, she goes to work, while Luke is still in bed asking when he’ll see her again. It was very much like Robin Givens’s character in Boomerang.

Claire Temple, who was introduced in Daredevil plays a huge role in Luke Cage. What was your intention in adding Claire to the mix?

Rosario Dawson is such a resourceful, intelligent actress that you can do anything with her. Claire can motivate Luke without being a foil—I didn’t want her to be a cheerleader, I wanted her to be a point guard. We wanted to flesh out Claire and give her a totally different dynamic on our show. It was always important for us to give Claire something to do because remember, in the comics she is Dr. Claire Temple and we wanted to lay the groundwork for that. Also, in the comic books Claire and Luke had a very deep relationship and we wanted to reflect that.

One of my favorite scenes is between Claire and her mother talking about fate and mysticism.

When Claire's mother mentions curandera it’s very specific to Boricua culture. It’s a great way to talk about mysticism in a different way. We wanted to show mysticism isn’t limited to Asian culture. There is Wakandan mysticism in The Black Panther, but we’re not connected to that. Marvel has always had mysticism like Asgardian mysticism in Thor or Doctor Strange. In Claire’s case we wanted to be culturally specific with Claire’s Afro-Cuban culture.

One of the most interesting debates to come out of Luke Cage is whether Luke and Jessica Jones will end up together. Fans have been vocal in seeing Luke end up with Claire or Misty.

Luke and Jessica had a very casual relationship that was on the way to becoming something until Luke found out about Jessica killing [Luke's wife] Reva. Because of that storyline in Jessica Jones, we had to find a way to connect Reva to the Seagate conspiracy. I didn’t set that story arc up—it was given to me so I just ran with it. We as Marvel showrunners are a family, so if one of the showrunners comes up with something they think will work for their show, they have to run with it. But we all work together as a collective—I liken our group to Pixar. We all know and hang with each other, so it’s all good.

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