In addition to introducing viewers to a new solo hero, “Luke Cage” will also take fans to a new neighborhood in the Marvel universe: Harlem. When “Jessica Jones” supporting player Luke Cage (Mike Colter) steps into the lead, he’ll do so around 75 blocks north in the iconic New York City neighborhood. And while “Jones” and “Daredevil” shot plenty of exterior scenes in neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, “Luke Cage” set up production in the very neighborhood it’s portraying. As the cast and crew of “Luke Cage” shared with members of the press during Comic-Con International in San Diego, the opportunity to film in Harlem was one that could not be passed up.
“The opportunity to film it in Harlem was irresistible,” said showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker. “I didn’t want us to talk about Harlem and then not film in Harlem. The people that live in Harlem will see places and see blocks and see the wide boulevards and go, ‘Oh that’s Lenox’ or ‘They’re over there by the Adam Clayton Powell statue.’ It was important that we really see it. The opportunity to shoot in New York and that we were able to do that was really special.”
Simone Missick, who plays Detective Misty Knight on the Netflix series, said that she felt welcome in Harlem. “There’s an episode where I do something,” said Missick, laughing at how vague she has to be about episode specifics. “You’re out, you’re on a playground, you’re on a basketball court and there are the kids in the neighborhood, and they’re like, ‘aw snap!‘ Like, yelling in the background, people walking by, and it makes you feel like yeah, you’re from there. It makes you feel like shoes that you’re putting on as opposed to a soundstage or on a set where it’s cold and it’s not that.”
Coker added that he chose to shoot in Harlem even when locations were found in other neighborhoods that could double as the iconic location. “When we did the location scouting, there was another barbershop that would’ve been a little easier for us to shoot in and it was in the Village, and I said no,” said Coker. “If we have a Harlem location that works and fits, let’s shoot on the block.”
Shooting at the barbershop in Harlem proved to be a homecoming of sorts for series lead Mike Colter, who plays Luke Cage. “I lived across the street from there, literally across the street from there, years ago. That’s where I lived,” said Colter.
“Mike stopped traffic everywhere he went,” said Missick of her co-star. “I mean there was this woman who was like, ‘Oh my god, you look like my first husband!’ He got a lot of the attention because people had seen ‘Jessica Jones,’ it came out right while we were filming.”
Afre Woodard plays Harlem politician Mariah Dillard, and the actress said that the show’s innate Harlem-ness drew her to the project. “One of the exciting things about [‘Luke Cage’], besides the fact that he’s bulletproof and all that and that it’s so well written, is that it was Harlem, baby,” said Woodard. “Harlem has been so many things for African Americans for so long, and I love the fact that Cheo knows Harlem, knows the history, knows the culture. And so this piece, [with] all the Marvel superheroes, the neighborhood is a character, [like] Hell’s Kitchen. But he had Harlem — it’s just that [‘Luke Cage’] is a love song to Harlem.”
“I think sometimes people talk about Harlem in the abstract sense,” said Coker. “And what we wanted to do was at once acknowledge the Harlem that currently exists and the Harlem of the past. Harlem as it currently exists is being highly gentrified. All the rents are going up like crazy. People are complaining about the fact that these restaurants and big stores are coming in that are ruining the personality and history of the neighborhood. So we wanted [Alfre Woodard’s character] Mariah and people talking about that.”
“Ultimately Harlem, the character that we’re trying to create, does resemble Harlem of maybe ten years ago,” said Colter. “Ten years ago was different. There wasn’t a Whole Foods there on the corner of 125. I lived there about that time and it just feels about there. It’s still Harlem but it’s not getting ready to be the Harlem that we know today.”
“It’s like, buy into Harlem. We bought into Harlem in the last ten years, so we some of those newbies too,” said Woodard of the changes facing the neighborhood today as new residents move in. “But we came to Harlem because it was Harlem. You don’t come to Harlem, buy in and then want to get rid of the drum circle. Everybody can come to Harlem to be in Harlem, with Harlem, so in a way, this is a document to say, ‘Hello everybody, this is what happened to Harlem every decade.’ It’s always been the artists, the politicians, the preachers, the shake dancers and the ballet dancers. It’s everybody together. It was the striving of the African American.”
“I come from Detroit originally,” said Missick. “Detroit, Harlem, Atlanta, D.C., these are all cities where black people are very comfortable being themselves. And that is welcoming as a crew, you know?”
While developing the series, showrunner Coker said that he “wanted to invoke the history of Harlem in terms of creating a club that could be the Cotton Club and Lenox Lounge and Smalls Paradise. That could be a place where you have Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell… Then on top of that you’ve got in the back of your mind Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas and Bumpy Johnson and Madam Queen and these legendary crime figures. So it’s crime, politics, music, really the whole cornucopia of the black creative existence in one place.”
In addition to showcasing Harlem, Coker hopes that “Luke Cage” will also inspire audiences as the first primarily black cast superhero show. Coker spoke about his grandfather, who knew something about breaking down barriers as he was a Tuskegee Airman. “He flew with the 100th Fighter Squadron and he said that ultimately you were a pilot,” said Coker. “The pressure came from knowing that because you were a black pilot that if you messed up this mission, you were going to affect the trajectory of every single person that came behind you as a pilot and possibly as a race. So if there’s any pressure, it’s that in life we want to see more people get these opportunities. The pressure comes from trying to make the best show possible.”
Coker also hopes that even though “Luke Cage” isn’t a show for kids, the character will resonate with audiences the way a certain Marvel superhero resonated with his 10-year-old twins. “I remember when I took the twins to see ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’ and when they saw Falcon get on the screen,” said Coker. “And the excitement on their eyes, and the fact that it was a hero that looked like them, I really for the first time saw the power of that. And it made me really excited to do the show because then it’s like — I’m realizing that even though, trust me, this show is not a show for kids, at the same time it’s like, he embodies a strength and a power that is a unique experience and the fact that we were able to do it and meld it with Marvel is incredible.”
All 13 episodes of Marvel’s “Luke Cage” arrive on Netflix on September 30.
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