“Marvel’s Luke Cage” is a vibrant homage to Harlem in all of its cultural, political and yes, even unlawful glory. Thanks to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker’s background as a music journalist turned TV producer, the famed New York neighborhood is reimagined with the energy of a hip-hop beat and power plays worthy of “Game of Thrones.”
It’s a kingdom based on everyday haunts like Genghis Connie’s Asian restaurant or Pop’s Barber Shop, where Luke Cage (Mike Colter) finds sanctuary after fleeing Hell’s Kitchen. While these establishments appeal to the hoi polloi, the glitterati prefer Harlem’s Paradise. The swank nightclub promises luxury, celebrity entertainment and even scandal thanks to the somewhat crooked ownership by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), who learned his ruthless ways from his grandmother, who ran illicit businesses back in the day.
“Mama Mabel is like the matriarch of Harlem and was in some ways ahead of her time and very successful,” Ali told IndieWire in an interview. “She put a lot of pressure on Cornell, which, in a way that could have been considered borderline abusive. You can kind of do the math on why Cornell is the way he is. He’s somebody who’s accepted the responsibility of being the heir to to some version of a kingdom.”
Playing gigs at Harlem’s Paradise are real-life artists, connections acquired since Coker’s reporting days. “We were lucky enough to have Raphael Saadiq and Faith Evans and Jidenna and Charles Bradley, and a number of people that you’re going to see in these episodes,” he said at TCA. “So, on one hand, it’s a living, breathing club.
“And also, you know, gangsters love music,” he continued. “So that’s the thing about what the club represents to Cottonmouth, as well as to his family. It’s really our Iron Throne, to a certain extent, that club and even the way that it’s established. It just really sets up our version of this universe in a really compelling, really fun way.”
Coker, who was a friend of Biggie Smalls and literally wrote the book on him, paid tribute to the rap legend at Harlem’s Paradise. In the clip below, Cornell demonstrates his right to rule using a painting of Biggie wearing a crown:
Cornell’s cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) took a different but equally influential path to power. “[Mama Mabel] sent Mariah to good schools… so she grooms one grandchild this way and one child that way,” Woodard said. “Mariah knows everything, she’s exposed, but she might be sent out of the room… because you need deniability, but Cornell has always had to stay in the room because he is the man and he is going to be in charge. After going to [school], Mariah could go anywhere in the country or the world and have a great successful life, but she comes back to wield power in Harlem.”
The cousins’ manipulations, the lackeys who work for them, the enemies they make, the people that they influence, the superhero who observes them — are just some of lives that contribute to the frenetic energy of “Luke Cage’s” Harlem. The neighborhood is in turn energized by a hip-hop heartbeat courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Alan Younge, who scored the series. For Coker, hip-hop is vital to and permeates the entire show, from its episode titles (all named for Gang Starr songs) and soundtrack to the fight sequences and Harlem’s residents.
“The music kind of gives this undercurrent rhythm, you know, and it gives us a pulse for every single episode,” Coker said. “I wanted it to be real, I wanted it to feel real. In the same way you can have a flavor of the music and a flavor for the entire vibe, I thought it was important to basically meld that with this Marvel storyline. And so just the power of matching ‘Luke Cage’ with hip-hop beats and attitude I felt kept it topical, kept it current but at the same time, opening and expanding the world in ways that people might not have anticipated.”
A surprising cameo by real-life Harlem tailor Dapper Dan further blurs the line between real life and “Luke Cage” life.
“Dapper Dan is a Harlem icon. The incident that happened in front of his store with Mike Tyson is Harlem lore,” Coker said. “In addition to the fact that so many rappers, Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B and Rakim, Heavy D, Ultramagnetic, a lot of hip-hop icons on their album covers are wearing Dapper Dan fashions. The thing was we were saying, ‘Okay, Luke lives in Harlem.’ Anytime we can introduce a real Harlemite that people from Harlem will recognize, it’s a different level of credibility. It’s really our Harlem version of the Stan Lee cameo. The Stan Lee cameo is like, ‘Oh it’s Marvel,’ it’s real for the genre fans. But to have Dapper Dan there, people are going to be like, ‘Whoa!’”
All 13 episodes of “Marvel’s Luke Cage” are available to stream now on Netflix.
Check out this video to hear Dapper Dan himself weigh in on “Luke Cage’s” Harlem: