[Editor’s note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Marvel’s Luke Cage” Season 2.]
“Luke Cage” showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker isn’t at all shy when it comes to acknowledging his influences, grinning as he described a jar in his writers’ room that demands a dollar anytime someone makes a reference to “The Wire” or “The Godfather.”
“I come to the room with cash,” Coker laughed.
And that’s clear when you watch the final minutes of “Luke Cage” Season 2, when Luke (Mike Colter) accepts the mantle of leadership from Mariah (Alfre Woodard) over Harlem’s Paradise, and Misty finds herself shut out of the inner sanctum just like Kay Corleone.
“When we were filming that moment, where the door closes on Misty,” Coker said, “I literally had my iPad open to say, ‘okay I want to pause, so that we’re going to match the shot on Kay in reverse.’ We put it in there.”
Coker credited his uncle, Richard Wesley (a writer whose credits include “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Native Son,” with instilling his obsession with the classic Francis Ford Coppola gangster film. “He taught me how to write drama from watching ‘The Godfather.’ I’ve seen ‘The Godfather’ a hundred times at least. Not an exaggeration. I write to it, honestly.”
The “Godfather” ending was the direction that Coker always meant Season 2 to go: “It was one of those things where both Marvel and Netflix, they were just electrified. That was the thing that I pitched at the very beginning of the season, was that at the end of the show, we’re going to see Luke on the balcony. We just didn’t know how he was going to get there.”
And that had a major impact not just on the end of “Luke Cage” Season 2, but where things might go in Season 3. “Luke is lying to himself in the same way that Michael Corleone lied to himself, because you always think you’ll be the person to change the system, but the system changes you. Mariah’s revenge, giving Luke the club — knock on wood we get a Season 3 — he’ll be challenged in a similar way.”
While Coker may not have been totally sure, at the beginning, how Luke would find himself on that balcony, he thoroughly enjoyed the process of figuring it out. That was especially true when it came to utilizing the musical elements of the series (including live performances by Faith Evans & Jadakiss, Ghostface Killah, Joi, D-Nice, and Rakim).
“It’s great fun,” he said, reflecting back on his roots as a writer for Los Angeles Times, The Source, and other publications. “The reason I became a music journalist is I wanted to be an A&R person. Someone told me the best way to do that was to write about the music so I did — I never got a chance to do A&R until now.”
He laughed: “I assemble the show the way one would sequence an album. My joke about ‘Luke Cage’ is that it’s really a bulletproof version of ‘Lemonade.’ That’s what we try to do. We try to make a great concept album that also happens to have incredible drama. The music and drama are intertwined — because it’s not one thing or the other.”
It’s also another opportunity for a Coppola homage. “Sometimes people say, because they’re younger, ‘Oh, [Harlem’s Paradise] must be a shout out to ‘New York Undercover’ and for us, my main influence for that was the Francis Ford Coppola movie, ‘The Cotton Club.'”
Centering the show around a place like Harlem’s Paradise spoke to the core of setting “Luke Cage” in Harlem, Coker felt. “Harlem is both Las Vegas and Washington D.C. for African Americans, because Harlem has always been the root of political consonance for African Americans. It’s part of the root of music: Everyone from Duke Ellington to James Brown to A$AP Rocky comes out of Harlem or has touched Harlem in some way. And when you talk about the Harlem Renaissance in terms of literature, or when you talk about legendary gangsters, whether it’s Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes — Harlem is one of the places where all three exist simultaneously,” he said. “So it’s an incredible world for a superhero, because normally you’d have to make that stuff up. But by putting a superhero in Harlem, you have the atmosphere already. You’re just enhancing it, by inserting a bulletproof black man into this ecology and seeing how things ripple.”
It’s an angle that he’s felt able to explore thanks to his relationship with Marvel. “It’s complex because they’re a complex company to work for, only in that they are incredibly passionate about their brands,” he said. “Their brands are 70-something years old. So they’re very specific.”
His take on developing the show through both Marvel and Netflix, today, is that “each script is a piece of legislation. You just want to make sure by the end of the process, it actually reflects the law that you are trying to pass in the first place. You’re going to go through two houses and each house is going to have a different demand. You’re just trying to make sure that no one’s adding pork to add pork. That’s ultimately the process. But the democratic process itself works, as many times as there’s lots of ups and downs and back and forth. I wouldn’t trade it because the show that we have at the end is a show that I love.”
Coker doesn’t know what might come next for Luke Cage as a character, whether it be a third season, potentially another season of “The Defenders” crossover series, or another sort of approach that “Luke Cage” Season 2 was able to tease in Episode 10, “The Main Ingredient.” In that episode, Luke’s fellow Defender Danny Rand (Finn Jones), AKA the Immortal Iron Fist, comes by for a visit.
“I think we proved just how interactive ‘Luke Cage’ is,” Coker said of Season 2. “I think when we first put out images of Iron Fist on ‘Luke Cage’ people were like, ‘I don’t know.’ But when they see Episode 10, when they see them fighting side by side, and the chemistry that they have together — it makes me want a ‘Heroes for Hire’ spinoff. Watching Iron Fist do his thing next to Luke with Wu-Tang is just fun.”
Added Coker, “We did it differently than ‘Defenders.’ For me, it’s not about playing Wu-Tang, it’s playing the right Wu-Tang with that moment.” That track, for the record, was “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber—Part II,” from 1993’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).”
Whatever comes next, Coker is excited to find out what people think of where Season 2 ends. “Honestly, I love Season 1, but I think Season 2 is a better season. As much as I love Season 1, I’m hoping that people’s reaction when they get to the end of this season is to go back and watch all 26, and think about, ‘Did I ever really know who Luke Cage was?’ Because now he’s in a different place.”
“Marvel’s Luke Cage” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.