Luke Cage’s new star Mustafa Shakir knows a thing or two about Harlem.
The 41-year-old actor was born and raised there, and has witnessed a slew of major changes to the city over the course of his lifetime.
A 2016 op-ed in the New York Times claimed that the city was witnessing “the end of black Harlem”, but at least in the Marvel world of Luke Cage, ‘black Harlem’ is very much alive and kicking.
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Shakir stars as season two’s new villain John “Bushmaster” McIver, a powerful Jamaican who could be more than a match for the ‘bulletproof’ Luke Cage.
For Shakir, seeing his home town come alive on screen is a special experience.
“It’s a beautiful nostalgic snapshot,” he says of Marvel’s depiction of the city. “It’s a Harlem that I remember.”
Shakir left the area in 2003, but his affection for Harlem remains.
“It’s had a few renaissances,” he says. “It was the craziest place in the world when I grew up, in the 80s and 90s – it was like a third world country. But after what [former mayor Rudy] Giuliani started and what [Michael] Bloomberg continued, it’s like an entirely different city.
“Like, Riverside Drive: you would see no one jogging along with their pups down there, and now it’s like bike lanes, all of that. Which I can appreciate, but you know, there’s the other side of it too: there’s not a lot of care with the change. It’s just like, ‘Get out of the way, I’m putting up a bike lane here’, and I don’t like that so much.”
But Shakir says that the Harlem that he remembers still exists in pockets of the region.
“If you walk down the right block on the right day, you’ll see it. The kids playing out double dutch, guys playing cards or dominos on the sidewalk.”
The music venue in the series, aptly titled Harlem’s Renaissance, was partially inspired by legendary theatre The Apollo.
And then there’s the title character, a bulletproof, street-level superhero played by Mike Colter, the first black actor to lead a Marvel vehicle – season one arrived on the scene even before this year’s smash-hit Black Panther.
It’s the kind of series that Shakir has longed for since he was a six-year-old kid in New York watching people like him on the TV for the first time in Diff’rent Strokes (also set in Harlem).
“It was cool to see Superman flying around and saving people, but when I saw Black Panther I thought, ‘I could do that too!’” he says. “And I’m 41! Imagine if you’re 12. There’s a sense of empowerment that is overlooked. You want to see yourself.”
Luke Cage is Shakir’s second starring role in quick succession after 21 years struggling to stay afloat in Hollywood, and he says that this is representative of a change not just for him personally, but for the industry as a whole.
His breakout role in last year’s acclaimed HBO drama The Deuce, he says, was originally meant to be played by a white actor.
“There was a time where I was just like, ‘Another, f*** you bitch, gimme your money’ audition…,” he sighs. “The character I play on The Deuce, Big Mike, was originally white. He gets to play against the stereotypes just because of that. And that’s fun.”
As for the less positive changes that are affecting his hometown, Shakir says that it is not just limited to Harlem.
“I think New York in general has lost some of its yummy dirt. It stops supporting the artists because it has become so expensive. They can’t live there, so they get pushed out, and the nucleus gets broken apart. It’s not just a Harlem phenomenon, it’s a New York thing.”
Luke Cage season 2 is available to watch on Netflix now