STORY BY ROB LOWMAN
Southern California News Group
When bullets are supposed to be bouncing off your superhero character’s body, it’s important that an actor take precautions. Mike Colter remembers what happened when he forgot his earplugs one day and a prop exploded near his head.
“I couldn’t hear the entire scene. I don’t remember what happened,” says the star of Netflix’s new “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” which dropped all 13 episodes of the first season on Friday. “At first, it seems like a daunting task, because these things are exploding on your body, and it doesn’t seem natural.”
Now, he says, he’s gotten use to all the tricks needed to be an on-screen superhero.
At 6-foot-3, the actor has the build and visage of a superhero. He made an impression last year as Cage in “Jessica Jones,” one of the four Marvel “Defenders” series, which include “Daredevil” and next year’s “Iron Fist.”
“Luke Cage” — created as a comic book in 1972 during the blaxploitation craze — is the first African-American superhero made for television.
Despite its fantasy elements, the series is rooted in the rich culture and history of Harlem, where it’s set, and where Luke, the wrongfully convicted, bulletproof ex-con, lives.
The series was created by Cheo Hodari Coker (“Ray Donovan””Notorious”, who notes Cage was created during the era of “Shaft” and “Super Fly.”
“All blaxploitation really is, honestly, is the ability for an African-American character to fight, get the girl, and have the low-angle shot the same as John Wayne, Sean Connery, Steve McQueen,” Coker says.
For every superhero, there is a villain, and here it’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali of “House of Cards”), the owner of the Harlem’s Paradise nightclub.His cousin Mariah Dillard (the great Alfre Woodard) has taken a different path. As a local politician, she is looking to help Harlem, while being wise to the realities of the streets.
“He’s still doing business the way people of color and immigrants had to do back in the day,” says Woodard about the “Cottonmouth” character. “You operated a little bit inside the law, a little bit outside the law.”
Luke is reluctant to use his power, but circumstances and his sense of right and wrong force him to act. His only disguise is a hoodie. In this era of the Trayvon Martin killing, it becomesa rebuke to the idea that a black man in a hoodie is to be feared.
The barbershop and the nightclub become places where black culture can be displayed and discussed on the series. In one scene, there’s adiscussion about the relative merits of the Donald Goines’ Kenyatta book series about a black militant in the 1970s versus Walter Mosley’s books about “Easy” Rawlins, the South Central Los Angeles private eye.
Meanwhile, the nightclub, which harkens back to the Harlem Renaissance, has real entertainers, such as Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Jadeta and Charles Bradley performing live.
“It’s a great club,” says Coker. “You wish that club actually existed. And we always said that, God forbid, the show doesn’t work, at least we can book out the club.”
Colter believes it’s important for black culture to have positive images, and he hopes “Luke Cage” — which has a predominantly black cast — does that.
“We’re just trying to tell a story about a superhero who’s going through the same kind of changes that other superheroes, who are not black, go through,” the 40-year-old star says. “But because we are in small numbers, and there’s not as many of us, we’re kind of looked at differently.
“We have no agenda, but I’m proud that people do think he’s a good superhero. And I hope that the black community can feel good about him as well.”