There's a belated, increasing push for TV shows to have diverse writers' rooms and creative teams, but Cheo Hodari Coker was ahead of the curve, setting a gold standard as the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of Luke Cage on Netflix. In a first for a major television series of this sort, the show, which ran from 2016 to 2018 and starred Mike Colter as the titular Harlem-based hero, exuded diversity on camera and behind the scenes as well. It did so by following Coker’s vision of hiring not only the best people for the job, but those with the lived experience to give the work authenticity.
Ahead of his appearance at AfroComicCon 2020 for the "Creating a Superhero Show" panel, Coker spoke with SYFY WIRE about his work on Luke Cage and how he helped set the precedent for diversity.
How much did you have to fight to get that richness of diversity in the room?
It wasn't really a fight. I knew it wasn't going to be.
What did it take to get the writing room that you wanted?
As a showrunner, I set the tone. Either you're serious about having diversity or you're not. Marvel was serious about the diversity. So to me, it wasn't about having the best Black writers. It was about having the best writers who could also understand the culture.
We had Charles Murray, Akela Cooper, Nathan Jackson, Matt Owens, Aïda Croal, Jason Horwitch, Christian Taylor, and Matthew Lopes [who was a writer's assistant on Season 1 and promoted to a full writer on Season 2]. And then for Season 2, we added Nicole Mirante-Matthews and Ian Stokes.
It was a diverse room that was majority Black. For me, culture rules, and if you're able to build an environment where people can flourish then you're not really as concerned about having Black writers. Even if you have Black writers, you don’t want a room where white culture is the main paradigm.
For Luke Cage, it was about having geeks who could explore their Blackness, without having to check their geek sides or their Black sides at the door. For a lot of us, it was the first room that was majority Black and majority geek.
You once said that you don't go around thinking about yourself as a "Black showrunner" because you're Black, period. You're always going to be Black; the rest of it is just doing your job.
My grandfather always said, “Don't become Black history while you're trying to make Black history.” He was a fighter pilot. And as a [Tuskegee] Airman dealing with racism, he knew that if he got it wrong, it was gonna be hard for other Black people to have similar positions after him. So he could not fail in his mission. But at the same time, being 20,000 feet in the air, with physics involved, being shot at and shooting back, Blackness was not as important as his ability to execute and not get rattled. You have to be able to do both.
My thing is, “Yes, it's unfair that there are very few Black showrunners. If my group fails then it will be very hard for someone who looks like me to ever get this job again.” But at the same time, it's every single skill that I've ever learned in every other room helping me. I don’t think about Blackness as much as I think about protecting what's real and having the ability to speak up when things aren't going right.
Luckily for me, things went right. And when I did have to fight for certain things, I was able to fight for them and ultimately people listened to me. That's all you really want; you just want people to listen and understand. If you reach a problem, you want people to say, “We're going to trust where you're going with this," and let it fly.
This makes me think about when people talk about how hard it is to find Black writers, which is really dishonest. Black writers are out there.
You have to be twice as good to get half as far. The real racism is not "If you're Black, can you do the job?" The real racism is "Will they give you the benefit of the doubt?" Because that's the one thing that white people get in spades. If you are a Black person writing about Black culture, because it's what you love, when [do] you get the opportunity to write about superheroes?
I'm an every Wednesday kind of superhero geek, but before Luke Cage, anytime there was a big superhero writing opportunity, I’d ask my business manager to put me up for it, and what I would always get asked is, “Do you have any superhero-like samples?” My thing is, where was the part when Timothy Hutton climbed walls in Ordinary People? Because Alvin Sargent wrote the best Spider-Man movie, but I didn't see anything in Ordinary People [which Sargent also wrote] that told me that this was the guy to write Spider-Man. They’re giving him the benefit of doubt that he's right or passionate about the subject, and they’re going to let him try. That's what any African American writer wants.
While working on the TV show Almost Human, I met a young writer’s assistant by the name of Matt Owens, who was the most passionate, smartest comic book lover and writer that I’d ever met. So I told him, “If I ever get a gig running a show, you're going to be one of the first people I hire." Once he got to Luke Cage, he flourished and wrote some of our most important episodes. Then he moved on to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where he kicked so much a**, and now he’s doing One Piece.
He just needed an opportunity. He had the expertise, but did he have the samples at the time? No. But I believed in him, and when he got the opportunity, he flourished. It’s the same with Akela Cooper and Aida Croal. They came off of numerous shows, but once they got to Luke Cage they were able to flex and write incredible episodes that really showed the full breadth of their expertise with character drama. Now both of them are doing incredible things.
I did not discover them. They made their own success because Luke Cage gave them the opportunity to level up in all ways. There have been so many times when we've been in writers’ rooms where we're an afterthought. But this was the opportunity to bring all of us together and just jam.
How do other showrunners get to that jamming?
You have to have the ability to be uncomfortable in order to achieve diversity. My friend Damon Lindelof knew that he wanted that for his version of Watchmen, and he knew that he needed to surround himself with African American writers who could bring a nuance and perspective that he didn't possess to the show.
He’s said on the record that certain things were not his idea. He had to have the courage to say, “You know what? I’ve got to follow the room. We have to go places that I don't quite understand but I'm going to trust their instincts, and they're going to trust mine, and together we're going to figure it out.” When you do that, you get Watchmen.
That's what it takes. You have to be open to diversity. I'm speaking specifically to white showrunners here: The benefit of diversity is understanding that while your perspective dominates the world, it shouldn’t.