‘Luke Cage’ in Manila: Black talent, black music, universal appeal

Marguerite de Leon
‘Luke Cage’ in Manila: Black talent, black music, universal appeal

David Lee/Netflix

The stars and showrunner of Netflix's hit Marvel series talk about the highs and lows of reaching a diverse audience

MANILA, Philippines – From the very beginning, Marvel’s Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker knew that his series about a black, bulletproof superhero from Harlem, New York was going to be successful. But what he didn’t expect was to come to Asia with the show’s stars and have them recognized in a heartbeat. 

“They used to always say that black talent or black content doesn’t travel,” Coker explained at AsiaPop Comicon’s Netflix press junket Friday, July 27, at Pasay’s Conrad Hotel.

“And when Luke Cage broke Netflix, it only proved that there’s a worldwide audience for black dramatic entertainment. I was telling Mustafa (Shakir, who plays season 2’s villain), ‘Man, a year ago you auditioned for this part, now we’re 7,000 miles away and everybody knows who you are.’ It’s just mind-blowing. It’s the coolest thing ever.”

The show’s second season was not without its controversy, however.

Shakir’s character, Bushmaster, was raised in Jamaica, while Shakir himself grew up in Harlem, where the show is set. Questions were raised about whether it was right for him to have gotten the part instead of a native Jamaican.

Shakir, however, has taken the criticisms in stride.

BUSHMASTER. Mustafa Shakir plays a Jamaican gangster with an eye on ruling Harlem. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

“I’ve gotten praise, and then I’ve gotten the complete opposite, like ‘you’re disrespecting the culture,’” he said. “And I’ve had to be okay with that. It’s such a difficult balance to strike, too, to make it understandable to the world at large, but at the same time paying tribute to the roots of Jamaica.”

Mike Colter, who plays the show’s titular hero, was quick to support him. 

“Don’t take it so seriously,” Colter added.

“Listen, you’re lucky anybody’s representing you anywhere on TV. Be proud of the fact that people are saying, ‘Hey, we want to put the spotlight on your culture.’ We have to cast actors, first and foremost, that play roles. It’s hard to find somebody who’s actually Jamaican, who actually looks like this person, who can act. That stuff’s hard. I’m from the South. You know how many times somebody’s butchered Southern accents? If the narrative is good, I’m in it, and everything else comes secondary.”

One thing viewers agree on, on the flipside, is the deft use of music all throughout the series. This is a particular point of pride for Coker, who was a music journalist prior to being a showrunner, and credits his previous career for giving him a wide musical vocabulary.

He made sure each episode of Luke Cage featured black musicians, and reveals that he actually mixes the music for every single episode as if it were an album.

“You make thirteen episodes, you make thirteen albums,” Coker said. “Because I think about how you listen to the show as much as I think about how you watch it.”

Shakir also noted how important music was to him when preparing for his role, saying, “I listened to a lot of Jamaican gospel. It just transported me to Jamaica and gave me a point of view for Bushmaster that was very specific for me.”

It’s this sense of the whole show flowing organically, like music, that resonates with the cast and crew. Colter, in fact, admitted that getting into the role of Luke Cage wasn’t a struggle. He said that when he first learned of the character, he immediately took a liking to him and knew that the role would suit him.

“It’s work,” Colter said about playing Luke. “But at the same time, it’s not work if it fits.”

Coker couldn’t help but agree. 

“Doing the show, as stressful as it is, once you get it up and running, it’s incredible,” he said. – Rappler.com 

Seasons 1 and 2 of Marvel’s Luke Cage are available for streaming on Netflix. 

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Marguerite de Leon

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon heads Rappler’s Life and Style, Entertainment, and Opinion sections. She has been with Rappler since 2013, and also served as its social media producer for six years. She is also a fictionist.