Still from Marvel’s Luke Cage.
Last year, the Marvel-Netflix collaboration Marvel’s Jessica Jones brought its viewers a pearl-clutching shock right in the middle of its first episode: a shockingly realistic sex scene in which the title character gets screwed from behind while the camera focuses tightly on her impassioned face. After years of creatively conservative Avengers-movie fare, one was left wondering, Can you even do that in a Marvel property? Marvel’s Luke Cage, the latest product in the brand’s Netflix mini-empire, forces the viewer to ask that question again roughly a third of the way through its first installment when it deploys the most charged word in the English language.
“But when the smoke clears, it’s niggas like me that let you hold on to what you got,” intones the show’s bass-voiced antagonist, Cottonmouth, in a conversation with his cousin, the politician Mariah. “You know I despise that word,” she counters with a sneer. His reply: “I know. It’s easy to underestimate a nigga. They never see you coming.”
Over the course of the seven episodes released to critics, the word — usually pronounced in its “-a” variation, though occasionally veering toward “-er” — pops up more than two dozen times. It’s there in songs, in threats, in casual conversation. At times, it’s a topic of discussion, as when Luke tells a stick-up boy who’s just used it: “I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word.” More often, it just rolls off the tongue, blending into the cadences of a show with a nearly all-black cast. But it wasn’t necessarily easy to get the word onscreen.
“They had some trepidation, I’m not gonna front,” says show creator Cheo Hodari Coker of his initial conversations with higher-ups about the use of the N-word in a cinematic universe still mostly known for family-friendly superhero fare. “But my whole thing was that, in using this word, I didn’t want it to be comfortable. I wanted [it to be] that, every single time that it’s heard, you think about it.”
That said, Coker acknowledges the fact that, as the show goes on, it feels less like a statement and more like a common noun. Your ears still perk up, but the shock of it lessens. Indeed, he hopes viewers will understand how natural the word can be. “I also really wanted the show to kind of live on its own terms of, This is what it’s like when you eavesdrop on black people talking to each other,” he says. “That word, at times, will come up in certain ways.”
“The word has dexterity in black culture,” says Mahershala Ali, who plays Cottonmouth, and thus has the distinction of introducing the N-word to the multi-billion-dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe. “You could literally say it one way one second and say it a split second later and mean a totally different thing and a person can pick up on it.” He says using the word “wasn’t anything I lost sleep over at night.”
Mariah’s distaste upon hearing it said in that scene reflects the series’ larger exploration of respectability politics: the question of whether a black person has a responsibility to present a wholesome and inoffensive demeanor to the world. Alfre Woodard, who plays the character, says she can personally relate to that dilemma.
“With my dad, we were never allowed to say that word. Ever. We could swear, but you couldn’t say that word,” she says, her eyes wide. “It meant something to him because, when he grew up, young black boys could be strung up for looking at you. So it meant another thing.” That said, she grew up and adopted it as part of her linguistic toolbox. “My [experience] was all like, ‘Hey, my … !’ It was always endearment. So everybody has a different context. You respect how everybody feels. You read situations and you respect that.”
Respectability politics played an even more intense role in Mike Colter’s portrayal of Luke. “I remember talking to [Cheo] about it and I was adamant that Luke was not a person that used that language,” Colter recalls. “He needs to be someone we can aspire to be. And I felt like, if he was the kind of guy that used that language all the time, like someone on the street corner who didn’t respect himself or the people around him, then he, in a sense, had lost already, had given up.”
However, Luke does use the word in the aforementioned confrontation with the stick-up boy, which occurs after a series of traumas. “I ain’t layin’ back no more,” he snarls with a gun pointed at his head. “You wanna shoot me? Do it. Pull the trigger, nigga.” In Colter’s mind, Luke’s just too exhausted to be respectable in that moment.
“He’s gone through so much and he has to deal with this guy,” Colter says. “On the day we were shooting, [Cheo] was like, ‘Should we take it out?’ And I said, ‘No, I think I’m feeling it. I think it works in this moment because this is the one time he’s gonna use it.’”
Even if there was some initial trepidation about introducing the N-word to Marvel’s film output, the company’s TV chief, Jeph Loeb, says he’s fine with the move. “That’s the language of that world,” Loeb says. “Would I say that that’s the language of the world of Jessica Jones, or is that the language of the world of Daredevil? No. It’s not.”
Here, Loeb thinks it fits with the vision of the man who introduced it. As he recalls: “When Cheo came to us and brought us his first script and we read it, he went, ‘That’s the way people talk. I’m not gonna be apologetic about it in any way.’”