Why Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Is Luke Cage’s Secret Weapon

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

In a throwaway moment on Netflix’s Luke Cage, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes insultingly calls his cousin “Black Mariah.” It took me until this brief, venomous jab to remember who Alfre Woodard’s cunning local politician, Mariah Dillard, was based on. Black Mariah, as she’s named in the Marvel comics, debuted just a year after Luke Cage, in 1973. Like much of the early “Hero for Hire” comics, her characterization is steeped in uncomfortable stereotypes. She’s essentially a criminal mammy figure whose physical largesse we’re meant to be repulsed by, rather than the nature of her crimes. When you place her origins and Woodard’s take on the character side by side, it’s hard to imagine they are the same person. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and his writing staff reimagine Mariah as someone far more complex and dangerous than her comic counterpart would suggest. 

On the Netflix show, Mariah is a shrewd, power-hungry city councilwoman who uses the language of black resistance to further her goals, even as her actions harm the very community she wants to protect. This contradiction makes Mariah not only the most fascinating foil for Luke, but one of Marvel’s best antagonists to date. She’s also an important reflection (albeit to a heightened degree) of the strictures real black women face, stuck between who they truly are and who the world wants them to be. Black women throughout the history of this country have been excluded from normal means of attaining power and autonomy. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Mariah a feminist icon (and she doesn’t have to be, nor does any character, to be worthwhile), but she’s able to be something black women, both fictional and real, rarely have the opportunity to be: selfish. Her arc is symbolic of what happens when a black woman has had enough of the expectations thrust upon her and decides to put herself first.

Through flashbacks, the show fleshes out the expectations placed on Mariah since her youth. She must keep her head down, study, and never want too much. Her ambition is meant to help others primarily — her cousin, the drug lord Cottonmouth, the community of Harlem — not herself. In real life, black women are told — sometimes subtly, other times loudly — that our desires are inconsequential; what matters is upholding a black community that doesn’t always have our best interests at heart. The series is at its best when it interrogates the expectations thrust on black women, and illuminates the complicated choices they make in navigating them.

One of the smartest things Luke Cage does in this regard is fleshing out the relationship between Mariah and Cottonmouth, and positioning them as representatives of opposing arguments — these scenes ultimately give us our deepest insights into who Mariah thinks she should be. She is ostensibly interested in making Harlem great again, and creating a legacy built on the type of unerring respect that lands your name on the side of buildings and in history books. Cottonmouth wants to reap immediate benefits — he’s not interested in helping the black community or becoming a part of the pantheon of lauded black heroes the show name-drops regularly. (They’re both motivated by selfish desires — he’s just more honest about it than she is.) As the series progresses, the divide between the cousins turns dangerous. Every hit Cottonmouth takes leads to public blowback for Mariah, forcing her to make exceedingly more ugly choices. Episode seven operates as an origin story for both of them, culminating in the show’s most gut-wrenching sequence — Mariah beating Cottonmouth to death in a fit of rage.

Here, the show’s representation of Mariah becomes more nuanced, because it’s the moment something switches in her. By blaming Mariah for her sexual assault at the hands of her Uncle Pete, Cottonmouth forces her to dredge up who she is under the image she’s forced to present to the world. Woodard colors her performance with subtle hints of something unhinged, hysteric, underneath her cool exterior. It’s there in the icy edge of her voice when she suggests the many ways Cottonmouth can kill Luke. And most crucially, it’s undeniable in her refusal to acknowledge that she’s the true inheritor of their grandmother, Mama Mabel’s, legacy.

Mama Mabel is a figure who haunts the edges of the narrative for the first few episodes. Each time her name is said, it comes across as a curse, suggesting that even though she’s long dead she still evokes a sense of fear. It isn’t until episode seven that she comes into focus. Mama Mabel ran a criminal empire but notably refused to sell drugs to the people of her community. She gained power through a mix of cunning, fear, insight into those around her, and obsessive loyalty from others. This is a woman who cuts off the finger of a lackey just as quickly as she comforts a near catatonic teenage Cottonmouth after he witnesses a brutal murder she ordered. She may operate within the shadows, but the people of Harlem know her as someone who can get things done. Need protection? A turkey for Thanksgiving? Go to Mama Mabel. Cottonmouth was groomed to take her place, but it is Mariah — whose expensive education taught her how to move through multiple worlds — who truly inherits her grandmother’s skills, ambition, and darker qualities. On the surface, Mama Mabel’s kindness toward the community feels selfless. But upon closer look, it’s a way for her to gain loyalty, and as a result, more power. Every move she makes is ultimately in her own self-interest, and on her own terms.

On a lesser show, Mariah’s hints of madness would come to define her arc, as it sometimes does on female-antihero-driven shows (see: UnREAL). It’s instead used to telegraph her character’s inner philosophical conflict. Her arc shows her struggling between being two different people: the upstanding politician trying to renew Harlem to its former glory, and the morally bereft criminal, and true heir of Mama Mabel’s legacy. In episode 12, she tells one of the show’s many villains, Shades, “[Cottonmouth] saw things in me I avoided my whole life. Now I’m becoming that person he always saw and I always denied.” In this way, Mariah is the embodiment of the revolutionary, poetic spirit Luke Cage aims for. More than anything, the series wants to subvert our expectations about black identity by using a superhero tale to create a new mythology. It fails to do that with its main hero, who is too burdened with having to be important in the television landscape, yet still safe enough so he doesn’t threaten Marvel’s usual audience that much. But with Mariah, the series is able to create a blistering new portrait of a popular archetype. Crime dramas love a good kingpin, from James Cagney’s deranged rendition in White Heat (1949) to television’s Tony Soprano. But we rarely see queenpins. In this way, Mariah disrupts the expectation that for black characters to be worthwhile, they have to be good, respectable, self-sacrificing. When was the last time you saw a 60-something black woman queenpin who outsmarted every man, leaned into her ambitions, and survived?

Mariah isn’t the only captivating black female antihero on television. Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder and Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope on Scandal fit within this tradition. But because those series are nighttime soaps, they seem less interested in ruminating on the psychology of these women than using their heinous deeds to power the next outlandish twist. Luke Cage makes the psychology of Mariah a driving force in the series.

Marvel has long had issues creating well-rounded characters of color. While Mariah is a step forward, if Luke Cage were as bold as it'd like to be, it would be Mariah, not Diamondback, who would emerge as the show’s most important villain. But for all its faults, the series has a surprisingly feminist bent. I lost count of the number of scenes in which the only people talking were black women over the age of 30 — all of whom exhibited depth that would be startling on any television show, let alone a Marvel property. And, as the first season progresses, Mariah deepens: She not only accepts but thrives in her new role, filling the vacuum Cottonmouth left behind. She also grows to resemble Mama Mabel in ways she’d rather not face.

Take, for example, how she answers Shades when he asks what she’ll do if the Harlem’s Paradise hostess — who she paid to be her alibi for the murder of Cottonmouth — folds under pressure: “We’ll have to kill her. And everybody else in that apartment. Which would be a damn shame. Duke Ellington used to live in that building and Count Basie too. I’d hate to bring down the market value.” In this brief scene, we get our clearest look at Mariah’s quicksilver nature: her deep admiration for Harlem’s black history, her capability for detached violence, her steeliness in the face of any problem. Woodard is able to gracefully move between put-upon kindness to keen-eyed menace with a level of subtlety that is virtually unseen within a genre as blunt as superhero adaptations.

Arguably, Mariah’s most damning decision comes later, when she uses the tragic beating of teenager Lonnie Wilson to her advantage. The innocent Lonnie is beaten by a black cop for not giving up information on Luke’s whereabouts. Seeing an opportunity, Mariah galvanizes Harlem in order to rehabilitate her political career, using the public’s fear of superpowered vigilantes to encourage the NYPD to buy weapons that can harm those like Luke. Sure, this makes Luke Cage’s politics somewhat contradictory and simplistic when it comes to the illustrating the ills of the black community. But it also further complicates Mariah’s character, proving that for all her claims about having Harlem’s best interests at heart, the only thing that matters are her own. She may be a somewhat over-the-top portrait of what happens when black women stop sidelining their desires for the goodwill of others. (Yes, being raised by a criminal mastermind has left her twisted.) But there is something radical in seeing a black woman operate like this.

What struck me even more was how the series acknowledges her sexuality, and uses it to further empower her. Being a brown-skinned, middle-aged woman would preclude her from having any carnal energy on another show. But one of the greatest strengths of Luke Cage is its ability to imagine the diversity within black womanhood. “Who you calling a spinster?” she asks Luke. “I can wear your narrow ass out.” In the series finale, after her unequivocal win, she looks at Shades with unbridled lust before kissing him and sauntering away. Shades looks back at her with a mix of desire and admiration. Mariah has that effect. She’s an unexpected creation within a genre that at times feels like it falls into the same traps. In many ways, I was eager to see her succeed more than Luke. And this isn’t because of the usual issue — that villains are more interesting than the heroes they come up against. It’s because she’s a more human character than Luke, a more frightening antagonist than Diamondback, and a more violent individual than Cottonmouth. Just when you think you have a handle on her, Woodard adds notes that bring new layers of understanding.

The undercurrent of every black art form, from Afrofuturism to hip-hop, is the desire for black people to be seen as fully realized human beings — imperfect yet whole. Mariah Dillard, in her own way, is the realization of this desire, and her humanity makes her a more compelling foil for Luke. Essentially, they both desire the same end result — keeping the spirit of Harlem alive. They both pride themselves on earning respect and maintaining a noble image. But Luke is positioned as a savior — a figure whose goodness runs so deep, it limits our understanding of who he is as a man. Mariah doesn’t have that problem. Thanks to the deft reimagining of an ornery comic character — through both Woodard’s performance and the writing — Luke Cage does something Marvel hasn’t been able to do elsewhere: create a complex female character whose intelligence and willpower makes her tower over the men around her. Not only does Mariah put herself first, but unlike her male counterparts, she ends up on top: Cottonmouth is dead, Shades is her right hand who knows his place, and Diamondback is in police custody after getting a beatdown by Luke so severe he needs hospital treatment. The series closes with her overlooking the bustling Harlem’s Paradise, a kingdom she can now call her own. Long live the queen.