In many ways, Luke Cage is more or less the same as Marvel’s other Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which see lesser-known heroes given a street-level storyline with a darker tone than the main Marvel movies. However, in one crucial way it’s something new.
“First and foremost, the obvious thing is that he’s black and there hasn’t been a lead black superhero in a film or television genre,” lead actor Mike Colter, who stars as the indestructible strongman Luke tells me. “Well, with the exception of Spawn and Blade, but people don’t tend to remember them that much.”
Furthermore, Luke Cage is in the reasonably unique position of having a cast made up primarily of actors of colour, in keeping with the series’ Harlem setting, a fact that other stars of the series are keenly aware of.
“Look, I’ve been working sixteen years as an actor professionally in television and film – I’m usually the only black person on the show most of the time,” House of Cards and Hunger Games actor Mahershala Ali says.
Mahershala Ali filming Luke Cage
“We usually don’t get to be that present and have it be the reverse where there’s a cast full of African Americans and a couple of white guys or an Hispanic person.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of but I wish it was happening more.”
In fact, that’s a major theme of the discussions I and other journalists end up having with the cast – how depressing it is that this kind of diversity is still uncommon enough in 2016 to be noteworthy, especially in a sci-fi/fantasy genre where anything is supposed to be possible.
“It makes no sense when you see there’s certain fantasy shows that are huge and there are no people of colour in any prominent roles in these projects,” Ali says.
“I’m like, ‘Do we not exist in any of these fantasy worlds?’ It’s confusing to me because it’s the future so I think if anything you could argue that people would be more mixed.
“It seems to me that you could lead the way in these genres because you can do anything you imagine.”
“I think it’s interesting that when they announced the next Iron Man would be a little black girl people took arms, they took offence to it,” adds Simone Missick, who plays tough detective Misty Knight in the series.
“I think it’s still a change that’s going on in our world, but I think that it’s exciting to watch.”
In some ways Luke Cage could be seen as a corrective to this, joining recent TV series like Empire and Atlanta in bucking the trend to have black actors front and centre in a way that acknowledges but doesn’t entirely focus on their race.
But with that said the series isn’t completely apolitical, with even Luke’s usual attire (a casual hoodie) apparently intended as a statement about the epidemic of black people being shot and killed by police in the US, which recently spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mike Colter as Luke Cage in the Netflix series
“It’s a statement in regards to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis – another young man who was gunned down,” Colter says animatedly.
“These guys were gunned down essentially because they were just hooded black males and that meant that they were threatening and that’s a prejudice and a racism that has been perpetuated. We have to find a way to change the narrative and this was one of the ways we wanted to do it.
“You’re trying to hide your face a little bit? Well, if I’m hiding my face it doesn’t mean I’m a murderer or a thief or anything to be afraid of.
“I keep saying when a young white woman puts a hoody on she’s really taking a nap on a plane but nobody bothers her, nobody thinks about it at all. She’s just getting cosy. It’s just a comfortable, warm piece of clothing. It’s got to be something that we can do to help talk about that and change the perception.”
But Luke Cage hasn’t always been so adept at challenging perceptions. Back in the 1970s, the original comic-book version of the character was portrayed as a jive-talking stereotype with a Jheri curl, a silver tiara and a giant chain as a belt, in an attempt to cash in on the wave of blaxploitation action movies that were becoming popular at the time.
“Archie Goodwin wrote the comic so you’re talking about a white man creating a black character in the 1970s, who is this sort of caricature in a sense,” Colter says now.
“It’s lucky that he created this character but I’m not sure how much he was trying to ground the character in any realism, but more keeping in line with the blaxploitation films that were already creeping through at that time.”
Still, over the years Cage became a more nuanced and realistic character in the comics, and that’s the version that exists onscreen in Netflix’s series.
“We were trying to bring him to a completely different place that was applicable and resonated with people today,” Colter says. “Right now I feel like being black is the main thing that people are looking at but also having a guy who is struggling.
“There are very real, tangible things about Luke Cage that make him unique and also make him feel like someone you can relate to.”
Simone Missick as Misty Knight in Luke Cage
Colter’s right; obviously, it’s as reductive and wrong now to pigeonhole Luke Cage as a “black superhero” as it was in the 1970s. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has created a rich and varied TV series which just happens to be set in a place (Harlem) that’s largely populated with people of colour, and the fact that the story is being told with black characters should be almost incidental.
But for now, it’s still an exception to a largely homogenized, Caucasian TV landscape – within a genre where it’s more likely to see a man fly through the air than have two actors of colour in the same scene.
“If you’re doing something that takes places in the 1960s – and if the story’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico or Alabama, Texas – I could see how there would be a certain degree of segregated storytelling,” Ali says. “But the fact is it’s 2016.
“I just don’t quite understand – especially in the sci-fi and superhero genre – why it’s taken so long for us to begin to make progress that is more a reflection of the real world that we live in.”
The entire first series of Luke Cage is available to stream on Netflix now