Interview with Luke Cage showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker

Jun 23, 2018

Season Two of Netflix’s Luke Cage has officially hit Netflix and fans will now get the chance to see what Luke Cage has been up to since his appearance in last year’s The Defenders. I had the opportunity to have a very openly discussion with showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker about the series, the thought process behind season two and we also get to chat about the music behind the show.
*NOTE: We do get into spoiler territory so if you haven’t seen season two yet, then what are you waiting for?


How are you doing?


Cheo Hodari Coker: I’m exhausted. We had our party yesterday. The show started streaming at 3am on the East Coast. I’m holding on for dear life right now. It’s always like this the first day of launch.


When the season first drops, with Netflix its usually in the middle of the night, do you usually stick around or refresh the feed to see first reactions from the fans?


CHC: On one hand I am reading critical responses, you know, In terms of Rotten Tomatoes and that kind of stuff but the most important moment is really what the fans think. It really is. I left the party and got back to the hotel around 1:45am, I blinked my eyes and woke up and it was 4 o’clock in the morning. I’ve been up ever since, just basically watching the feed, refreshing and looking at the comments. You’ll see on my Twitter, but I love when people react to the show and have comments and ask questions and then I’ll directly answer them. That’s always fun because people are probably surprised it is me. What’s great now is that now that I finally have the blue dot, people really do know it was me as to opposed to before when they’re like “Oh, is this really Cheo Coker?”


That’s one of the fascinating things about social media, it allows fans to connect to people they wouldn’t normally be able or have access to. It’s a great experience being able to connect on that type of levels.


CHC: It’s fascinating really. You can interact with anybody. So like right now, Alan Sepinwall, the Rolling Stone critic, he dinged the hell out of the show and I thought his criticism was unfair but instead of calling Rolling Stone and going through that rigmarole, I tweeted him. We’ll see if he responds.


Photo Credit: David Lee/Netflix
I did see the second season, Overall I loved it. The action, the story, where Luke Cage is mentally, to the music, everything has been stepped up a notch from last season. As you mentioned, you seem to be pretty hands on with audience’s reactions. How did that affect your process going into Season Two?


CHC: Well, Angelica Jade Bastien, who writes for Vulture, kind of became my Pauline Kael from the standpoint of like, her criticisms can be incredibly harsh but they were so well written that I loved her reviews, which seems contradictory. For me, I viewed it no different than a Politician reads opposition research. It’s incredibly valuable if you have thick skin. I’m lucky my skin is thick. I don’t really care if people like or don’t like the show, as long as they criticize it they are comprehensive in the reasons why they don’t like it. What pissed me off about the Alan Sepinwall review is he is essentially saying, “Oh well, there are only three or four episodes worth watching and the rest are a waste of time.” But he doesn’t say which are worth watching and he doesn’t say which are a waste of time. So to me, I’m like did he even watch them? When he says all these conversations aren’t meaningful, well is he talking about how Mariah Dillard talks about the fact that she was raped by her uncle and as a result from that physical and emotional trauma, she can’t (love) her daughter and that alienation of her daughter leads to her daughter killing her. Is that uninteresting? Is it uninteresting that Comanche and Shades had a , for the lack of a better phrase, a Moonlight moment in prison? There is a lot to unpack. I really feel like we tried our best to do that and to have someone say that at least the second season of Lost was more interesting? Get the fuck out of here!


Right, if you are going to side one way or another, be prepared to explain why. Going into this second season, was there any comments where you were like well maybe so-and-so was right, or no that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t quite fit into the current algorithm. 


CHC: Look, people are always going to give me shit about Cottonmouth forever. Fact of the matter is, Mahershala [Ali] didn’t want to commit to a series. The whole reason Cottonmouth was appealing to him was that he loved the first two scripts and ultimately he didn’t want to be tied to a series. The plan always was for Cottonmouth to die at the 7th episode. That’s why he agreed to do the show. It’s interesting now because also people are saying this break-up with Claire makes Luke look really bad. “They’re writing Rosario Dawson off the show.” No, she was only available for three episodes. Rather than saying her grandma is sick and has to visit her in Cuba, we decided to make this meaningful and have it be a character moment with Luke Cage where he might not look good. The thing about antiheroes and flawed heroes, The flaws make characters interesting. It’s the reason why it’s virtually impossible to write a good Superman story. It’s because he has no flaws. The thing is, is that Super gets asses in seats, human keeps them there.


Agreed. Same can be said about someone like Peter Parker, he struggles juggling his personal life and superhero life. He faces regular troubles like anyone else as well as having to put the mask on. Same with Tony Stark and his Devil in a Bottle storyline. Flawed heroes are what make the stories. With Luke Cage you see him go through this sort-of emotional shift, he seems to have his stuff together early on then after his first run in with Bushmaster, it seems to all turn on it’s head. 


CHC: This was the basic arc. This was something that really helped in shaping this entire season. The initial thing that was going to be Luke kicking ass and start feeling himself. Him putting up that video saying “I’m Luke Cage” and all that stuff, was going to address someone coming out of the woodwork to kick his ass because he is asking for it. The same way any boxing contender would but both Marvel and Netflix had issues with that, because it’s one thing for Bushmaster to do that but why would Bushmaster want Harlem? We kept saying, well it’s like hip hop everyone wants to be top dog. Then we said that was bullshit. What is it really? What we figured out as a room, is that the reason Bushmaster wants Harlem is because Harlem is his birth right and he felt aggrieved by something that happened in his past that the Stokes were responsible for. That led to our whole backstory, about the broken relationship between his father and Mariah’s grandfather and how his father gets killed and his mother gets firebombed. Essentially Bushmaster is coming for Mariah but because Luke protects Harley, and Bushmaster doesn’t care who gets scorched, that’s why they tangle it up. That’s when even though Luke loses the first time, the reason he keeps coming after Bushmaster is because ultimately Harlem is his concern. He couldn’t care less if Bushmaster takes Mariah out. It’s really more about protecting Harlem. Once we had that motivation, it really gave us the opportunity to build a better story but then also think about Luke’s arc which is like, I’m invincible, I’m feeling myself, my anger gets in the way so much that I actually hurt somebody. When Claire calls me out, I end up freaking her out because she is right, I can’t control my anger. I get my ass kicked and then I have to basically spend the rest of the season reassess who I really am and work my way back from this defeat. Which Luke eventually does but really towards the end, bad things are still happening and now this worse thing has happened and really the only way to fix this is let me take out Bushmaster and let me take control of crime in Harley in the end. If you take control of the situation, you own the situation so if you take control of crime, you are a crime boss. Period. No matter how you try to spin that.


Maybe I’m reading too much into this but after watching the season, I felt one of the central themes of the series was “family”. Bushmaster is looking for redemption due to what happened with his family in the past, The mother-daughter relationship with the Stokes, Luke with his estranged relationship with his father. Misty and Luke even make a comment regarding family after they discover Piranha has died. When Luke mentions Piranha’s mom is still in Harley, Misty response with “Family is a good thing,” and Luke says “It can be.


CHC: Its all about legacies. Family legacies for better or for worse so you aren’t wrong.



Fans are going to go crazy over this, I know I did, we finally got to see the Heroes for Hire, Luke Cage and Danny Rand, together. How awesome was that being able to play with those two characters together.


CHC: It was great to play with those characters but it was the fact that we were able to play with those characters differently and do Iron Fist different than what we saw in his own series and in The Defenders. In our show, Danny Rand felt like the Danny Rand in the comics.


Absolutely. I think some of the comments on the internet from the Iron Fist series was about Danny’s naivety. Of course, it was only natural to see him mature throughout. We see him mature towards the end of The Defenders as well when he realizes what Matt is willing to sacrifice, and just being around other heroes. It felt like he was really starting to understand his place now. Now we see Danny back again and it seemed like of the two, he was the one that really had it together. In this season, even though his appearance is brief, I feel like we get a refreshing take on Danny Rand/Iron Fist.


CHC: The thing is, in order to do Danny Rand justice, you have to love Danny Rand the character. In order to love Danny Rand, you have to love Kung Fu, and Kung Fu movies and Kung Fu mythology, and the Kung Fu mentality  which is that all external problems are solved internally once thought about. How thoughts and emotion and all the different things you do to harness chi are what shifts the energy. Again, the anger thing and being off-balance, what Danny was saying, is the same thing Claire was talking about. Having Danny being a more of a guru in that spiritual sense instead of feeling like he is whitesplaining Kung Fu, you are able to avoid all the different issues, I think unfortunately, the character got bogged down by and really get down to the essence of these characters. Having the characters more like 48 hours, where Luke Cage is the Nick Nolte character and Danny is the Eddie Murphy character.


Lastly, let’s talk about the music, The Score and the soundtrack. One of my favorite scores of 2016 was from Luke Cage season one. I actually picked up the vinyl for that when Mondo did their limited edition release. It was amazing. I loved that Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad both came on board and are back for a second time around. The musical artists you had featured on the series itself, was definitely impressive. As an Austin local, it was awesome seeing Gary Clark Jr. make an appearance. We also got Ghostface, Stephen Marley, the list goes on. I know you have a music background, being a journalist and fan, how much fun was that constructing that part of the series? 


CHC: Well, you have to understand, I became a journalist because I wanted to be an A&R person. Someone lied to be and told me the best way to become a Hip Hop A&R person was to write about Hip Hop then incidentally I became a Hip Hop journalist. Whereas, what I really wanted to do was be A&R. What’s interesting now is that I essentially do is what an A&R person does, but instead of showrunning a record, I showrun a television show. For me, it was my dream job. It’s funny, people say “Well, do you love your job? Do you love what you do?” and I’m like “Yeah”, and they say to me, “Why are you so stressed, if you love it then what is the problem?” Then I say, Look, I love water, I just don’t love drinking water from a fire hose and that’s what showrunning is. It’s every aspect that you love about the coolest parts of the job but it’s so much at once. It’s so much of a rush that you try to mitigate the flow honestly.


As a heavy music, and especially hip hop fan myself, there were several moments throughout when the music would transition with the scene where I thought, “This seems like it would have Cheo’s touch all over it.”  


CHC: I pick every single needle drop, needle drop meaning every prerecorded song, I also have a very heavy hand in picking the musical artists. At the same time with Adrian and Ali, we all consult on the score but they ultimately do all the work. Gabe Hilfer, Season Kent and Whitney [Pilzer] are responsible for clearing all the music and making sure we can afford it which is crucial and the final key is Michael Brake who is the Music Editor. He is amazing. So essentially, I’m not must mixing thirteen episodes, I’m mixing thirteen albums because it’s an album of music for every single episode that Adrian and Ali do. The final mix is when I really go in hard, because I’m picking the levels at which the songs play and how they play in the background, the sound source it’s coming out of, all that stuff. If you look at episode 7 and that song that’s playing in the bar and then it transitioned to playing on the radio when Ridenhour drives to the dock. It’s that little geeky sound shit that I love. If I had to spend the rest of my career doing music placement and sound, I’d be happy with my career.