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Luke Cage’s Showrunner on Criticism, Black Hollywood, and That Explosive Season Finale

Photo: David Lee/Netflix

I had a lot of issues with the first season of Marvel’s Luke Cage. When the series premiered in 2016, I recapped each episode, and my criticism centered on the show’s noxious sort of respectability politics and its inability to understand its titular character beyond his role as a symbol — which is why I was surprised when Luke Cage’s showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, tweeted that those recaps helped him shape season two. I was even more surprised when Coker name-checked me in an Entertainment Weekly interview, and again to a colleague at Paste.

In season two, Luke Cage remains an imperfect series. But it is far bolder, riskier, and more fun: The arcs of the vulnerable yet villainous Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and Misty Knight (Simone Missick), the determined detective who finally gains her bionic arm, are highlights. Ahead of the season’s premiere last Friday, I spoke to Coker in a wide-ranging conversation about the role of hip-hop in Luke Cage, why family relationships are so crucial this season, the dynamics of Black Hollywood, and, of course, those recaps. He was open, engaging, and honest about what it takes to be a showrunner — especially given the challenge of creating a follow-up season — and he explained how his prior life as a music critic shapes his desire to never “shy away” from criticism.

Hey Cheo, how’re you doing?
I’m really excited to talk to you, as I have been for a long time. I’ve been saying all over the place just how influential your recaps of last season were on this season.

Yeah, I was surprised when you tweeted about that.
[Laughs.] This is my perspective: You have to sell your own unflinching truth. When I was a critic, I reviewed Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age — this is back in ’94 — and I called it a “Dante-esque spiral of the hip-hop hell.” I idolized Chuck D, but I just hated that record and I did not hold back. Chuck didn’t freeze me out. Every time I met Chuck, he always treated me with the utmost respect. I always remember that, now being on the other side. There are going to be people who just don’t get it, or are, frankly, plain stupid. But when somebody takes the time to think about what you’re trying to do, even if their opinion really differs from yours, it’s valuable. That was the thing I really loved about the recaps. It hurt like hell, but damn, she’s right!

Black art — especially when it comes to film and TV — is in a really interesting place. We are seeing more representation, but that representation is so important that black filmmakers sometimes don’t take risks, so I really appreciated the risks you guys took this season in showing the humanity of these characters.
Well, thank you. On the one hand, it was really using the recaps as a way to assess ourselves. But another thing, and I have said this in the past, is that I really view the show as like a bulletproof version of Lemonade. It is basically a concept album with dialogue. Let’s look at the most successful sophomore albums in hip-hop — for me, it’s The Score, it’s Paul’s Boutique. With the second record, you take elements of what made the first record work and then you try to up the stakes with something that helps you break through to another level. That was really our challenge. Can we come up with our Low End Theory? That’s really what this season represents.

The second season really interrogates who Luke is as a man. In season one, we didn’t really see Luke beyond his role as a symbol to Harlem, which I think had a lot to do with the show having such heavy expectations before the success of Black Panther. Why did you decide to approach that differently?
It was exactly what you said. It’s like, no pressure, you’re trying to establish a precedent for a black superhero that you want to be woke, but also is necessarily a polemic. You’re trying to tell a dramatic story. You’re trying to balance all these different story lines. You’re also a first-time showrunner. And in the midst of doing all this, you’re doing all 13 episodes pretty much at once. It isn’t like the broadcast model where you make three or four episodes, get reactions, and then shift. Did I do Luke Cage itself a disservice by being so interested in setting up all these different story lines that I didn’t make our main character definitive enough? You’re trying to live up to all these different expectations, but you’re losing the basic sight of what is he as a character, what’s he trying to do. The thing that we did, honestly, as a writing staff, is I had them read all 13 of your recaps.

Oh God.
Some people, when they get criticism, they shy away from it. For me, it was partially cathartic, partially things to keep in mind. Honestly, it was just, “Never lose sight of who Luke is and how this affects Luke.” Also, remembering if your villain’s plan makes sense on an emotional level, you have something. With Diamondback [in season one], there were elements that didn’t work. But I feel with Bushmaster, even with Mariah, there are things that resonated differently than they would’ve last season.

When I started the season, I wasn’t sure where you guys were going with Bushmaster. I appreciated all the reggae, but I wondered if he was an excuse to make those choices, music-wise.
[Laughs.] It’s funny, because it kinda started like that. Mike [Colter]’s wife, Eva, threw him a surprise birthday party and a lot of friends showed up, and there wasn’t a DJ. Mike ended up using Spotify or one of those things where you put in the name of an artist — he put in Shabba Ranks, and all of a sudden it started playing all this ’90s dancehall. Everything from Super Cat to Sister Nancy. It just took me back to the ’90s. It took me back to, you know, even though I’m not Jamaican, having to basically learn dancehall culture while covering hip-hop.

Going back through the Marvel of it all, the first Bushmaster comes from a small island in the Caribbean. I said, “Okay, great, so we can make him Jamaican.” Because that will allow us to get into the history of Jamaica, of resistance, of the Maroons, of Marcus Garvey, of all these different perspectives — and contrast that with Mariah Dillard’s family tradition of coming from the American South. You also have this incredible, rich musical background for the character. The combination of all those elements made for an interesting way to really get into this season.

Let’s talk about Mariah. Alfre Woodard’s performance is obviously amazing, and her story goes in places I was really not expecting, especially when it comes to her daughter, Tilda.
It took Alfre for a loop as well. It just blew her mind like, “What do you mean? You’re giving me a daughter?” And then the challenge was, how do you make that work? Why did she keep her at a distance for so long? In [episode] eight, she talks about how she didn’t wanna give [Tilda] away and is trying in her own way to make amends for the past, but by nine, she really gets into the roots of her anger. She gets down to the fact that, “As much as I’ve tried to love you, because of what happened to me, I can’t love you.” It was about ultimately making Mariah human so that when she does the inhuman, no pun intended, it makes her even scarier and ultimately a more tragic villain.

This season seems particularly interested in the dynamics between parent and child. Luke’s relationship with his father, James — played by Reg E. Cathey, who passed earlier this year — is especially important. How did you crack that relationship and what did you set out to accomplish?
It really goes back to one of the things that you said, which is the characters always seem human. When the Reverend James Luke is an abstract — when he was younger, from Luke’s perspective — then he’s the world’s biggest asshole. Then, when you actually meet Reg E. Cathey, you have the same reaction that Claire has: “Wait a minute, this guy isn’t necessarily who I thought he was.”

When Luke is facing off with his dad, when they run into each other, that scene was interesting to me because I didn’t have a great relationship with my father. Because my father died in 1997 and it was clear to me that these are things that I am not over. When Luke says, “You want things to be good with us? Bring Momma back from the dead, and then we’ll talk,” I was just like, Where does this come from? It’s like, let’s explore where this level of bitterness comes from and then let’s see if we can find a moment where Luke is finally hearing his father. With these parental relationships, what better way to explore a character than to understand biologically and emotionally where someone comes from?

How was it working with Reg E. Cathey?
Reg E. was actually the last actor that we cast in season one, in terms of regular recurring characters. Once we cast Reg E. — because I was such a huge fan of Oz and The Wire — all of a sudden I heard the character’s voice. Literally, I wrote that opening sermon in his voice and it must have taken like ten minutes.

I always thought, even when Reg was sick, it was always my hope that he would go into remission or that we would have the opportunity to watch the show together. That’s actually one of my regrets, that he never got to see the season. He would’ve loved it so much. I’ll never forget the first table read we did for episode one. From the second he read his sermon for the first episode, all of a sudden, everyone in the room was like, “Oh man, this is a whole new element to the show.”

The season ends in a very interesting place. Luke is now running Harlem’s Paradise, and Tilda kisses Mariah with the poisoned lipstick. It’s hard to imagine the show without Mariah, so where does Luke Cage go without her? Where does Harlem go without her?
Ultimately, Mariah does love Harlem. She really does. She didn’t sense that Tilda was gonna kill her, but it was important to her to give the club to somebody that loves Harlem. We knew that once we crossed certain lines, Mariah was gonna pay for it. Alfre was very clear, she’s like, “Y’all are killing me off, aren’t you?” [Laughs.] She said “Look, if you’re gonna kill me, just make sure I don’t cry like a punk.” She’s always funny. She’s formidable, but at the same time is playful. There’s so many great moments that go beyond writing for her as a character that I’m definitely gonna miss. But at the same time, when a hero becomes too defined by a villain, you have to find new ways for the hero to be challenged. Yes, it’s scary to get rid of Mariah, but by having her and Cottonmouth haunt Luke, it gives us an interesting perspective that we can explore if we’re given a season three. You see how the club changed Cottonmouth, you see how the club changed Mariah. Will the same thing happen to Luke?

In the closing moments of the season, while Rakim performs onstage at Harlem’s Paradise, Luke looks directly into the camera and we hear his father’s voice over talking about heroism. Why did you choose to end the season that way?
Well, [director] Alex Garcia Lopez originally shot that moment — when Luke sits down and then looks into the camera — because of a couple of things that happened on set. Luke was supposed to be on the perch and have this conflicted reluctance, but when Mike Colter got on set with Rakim saying his name, he decided to make a different choice about Luke loving this situation. It was really a brilliant choice on Mike’s behalf. It all of a sudden makes us question, “Is Mariah right? Has he already changed? Did we even know this dude in the first place?” But we were like, “How can we really get the audience in Luke’s head?” And so, that’s when I went back to Reg E.’s moment in episode nine. That voice-over just really resonated in so many ways.

It’s a really interesting approach on a meta level, reckoning with the expectations that have been placed on the show. Do you think the expectations will be different because this season is post–Black Panther?
[Laughs.] The reason I’m laughing is, because of the expectation you placed on the show!

Oh, I totally realize that. My expectations haven’t necessarily changed.
But you know what it is? Beyond the recaps, I read everything. I’m constantly reacting to the things people are saying on Twitter. It’s fun, honestly, interacting with people about the show. Particularly when they hate the show, it’s some of the most fun I have all week. It’s addictive! But what’s interesting is that people have all these criticisms of Luke Cage, all “it’s so preachy.” And then I’m watching Black Lightning, literally within the first three minutes, a brother is quoting Frederick Douglass and I’m like, “W-w-wait a minute! Where are the legions of people calling this show preachy!” All I’m reading is Black Lightning is so much better than Luke Cage and I’m like, “Damn.”

I see where you’re coming from. Black Lightning isn’t exactly a subtle show.
The thing that’s really interesting is that in the ’90s, there was this rivalry between John Singleton and the Hughes brothers and everybody else. The difference with this generation is that everybody is happy for everybody. Because Black Hollywood is so small, we all know each other. Even for like a “rivalry” like Black Lightning, I know the Akils and they’re really good people. Even though we’re all competing with each other, we’re also like, “Can you believe we’re in an era where you have not one, not two, but three black superheroes out there, and more that are coming?” It really is the golden age of black television and film.

Luke Cage showed that having authentic hip-hop wasn’t going to harm the Marvel universe, so it makes it easier for Ryan [Coogler] when he’s telling the story he wants to tell in Black Panther, saying, “I’m gonna put a Public Enemy poster in Killmonger’s apartment, and we’re gonna play Too Short.” When Ryan was able to do it on a much bigger level with a feature film, it was such a cool moment. All of us were just so proud. This movie changes everything for everybody, not only in film but also television-wise as well. Everybody accomplishes something that makes it easy for the next person, and that next person takes it to the next level.

I definitely agree. I will say, I know I’ve been very hard on the show, but honestly, I do it out of love.
[Laughs.] My only ask is that if you attack me, that you be on point, as you were. You came at the show, but you came at the show with brilliance. I appreciate that because ultimately it sharpens you in a good way. I much prefer that than just to be globbed with praise.

Luke Cage’s Showrunner on Criticism and Black Hollywood