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Luke Cage is the real dark knight — and he’s right on time

Mike Colter talks being called a N-word, the fascinating history of his character and what a black man in a hoodie really means in 2016

In the early afternoon of July 5, local CD man Alton Sterling was standing outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store when he was approached by two police officers. Minutes before, a homeless man had dialed 911 on the 5-foot-11, 300-pounder after Sterling refused to give the man money. Police officers Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni arrived at the scene, and an altercation ensued. Sterling was tased. And then he was shot multiple times at close range after one of the officers noticed Sterling had a gun. Sterling was pronounced dead at the scene.

A day later, nutrition services professional Philando Castile was riding in a white Oldsmobile with his fiancée and her 4-year-old daughter when they were pulled over by St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officers Jeronimo Yanez and Joseph Kauser. While reaching for his wallet, Castile was shot four to five times on the right side of his body. According to Yanez’s attorney, his client reacted to seeing Castile’s legally permitted gun that was in the 32-year-old’s waistband. Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, live-streamed the aftereffects of the shooting on Facebook, and broadcast Castile’s final breaths to the world.

Two weeks after the deaths of Sterling and Castile, at the San Diego Comic-Con, Netflix released the first trailer of its upcoming series, Luke Cage.

Cage runs through villains like Jerome Bettis with a full head of steam.

Backed by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 track Shimmy Shimmy Ya, the promo depicts Luke Cage — played by Mike Colter — wearing a hoodie and doing battle with street thugs in Harlem, New York. Using his superstrength, Cage runs through villains like Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis with a full head of steam. At the trailer’s climax, as Cage casually walks forward, a man toting an assault rifle riddles the protagonist’s hoodie with bullet holes. But Cage keeps walking, unfazed, until he drops the baddie just as he did the others.

Bullets don’t work on this black man.

Mike Randal Colter was born in St. Matthews, South Carolina. It’s a town of just over 2,000 people — 60 percent of whom are black. While Colter describes his childhood experience as “unique,” he hails from a state that proudly flew the Confederate battle flag outside its statehouse for 54 years until nine churchgoers were gruesomely murdered in 2015. “We had the Confederate flag flying over us for so many years,” Colter said. “And when you go down there, there’s still a sense of separation.”

At the age of 8, while his classmates probably wanted to be firefighters and astronauts when they grew up, Colter knew he wanted to be an actor. He even believes he was born to be one. But years before he could even realize that dream, he faced that moment that almost every black person in this country does: when he realized he was a black person in America.

As a member of the Cub Scouts, Colter was away at camp. He recalls sitting next to a boy, no older than 6, who just flat-out called him the N-word.

“He leaned over, and he just bluntly said, ‘You’re a n—–,’” Colter said. “But he didn’t say it like he was trying to be malicious. It was like he never sat next to a black person before, and for him he was just repeating what was obvious to him. It was just like if you saw a unicorn, or if you saw something you’ve never seen. It’s like you saying, ‘Hey, look at that. That’s what I’m looking at.’ ”

Colter was so caught off guard by the slur, he wasn’t able to process the significance. He wasn’t even mad. But it made him aware of his place in this country. “Growing up in South Carolina … I was acutely aware of what it meant to be black in a society where other people prejudged you.”

But Colter continued on his path. He headed the high school drama club. His classmates voted him “most ambitious.” Colter spent one year at the historically black Benedict College before transferring to the University of South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theater. Colter also earned a master’s degree from the esteemed Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where he met his wife, Iva, while the pair were both studying at Rutgers.

One of Colter’s first roles was a cringe-inducing guest appearance on the early 2000s show, The Parkers. After The Parkers and a guest spot on ER, Colter had his breakout role in the 2004 Clint Eastwood-helmed Million Dollar Baby, in which he portrayed aspiring boxer Willie Little. Since then, Colter has appeared in films such as 2010’s Salt, 2012’s Men in Black 3 and Zero Dark Thirty, as well as FX’s American Horror Story, CBS’ The Good Wife and multiple incarnations of the Law and Order franchise. In 2014, he took on the role of Locke in Halo: Nightfall, a live-action web series based on Microsoft’s Halo video game franchise. In Colter’s mind, this was his audition tape for roles such as Luke Cage.

“I wanted to get into the action field,” he said. “And I think [Halo] … kind of led to me being on Marvel’s radar. It’s like, ‘Can you do this thing?’ And they go, ‘Well, wait a minute, if he can do that, maybe he can do this.’ ”

A year after Halo premiered, Colter was starring as Luke Cage in Jessica Jones, the second installment of Marvel’s four-show partnership with Netflix. Playing a bar owner and love interest of the title character, Cage captured audiences with his suave and strong demeanor. Colter is 6-foot-3, physically imposing and has a chocolate complexion the masses swoon over. Basically, he’s the second verse of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man.”

Mike Colter filming the title role in Netflix's new show "Marvel's Luke Cage" on November 14, 2015 in New York City.

Mike Colter filming the title role in Netflix’s new show Marvel’s Luke Cage on Nov. 14, 2015, in New York City.

Steve Sands/GC Images

Though the Luke Cage series had been announced two years before his first appearance on Jessica Jones, the anticipation for Colter in a stand-alone role reached a fever pitch after his seven-episode Jessica Jones run.

The character Luke Cage first appeared in the Hero for Hire No. 1 comic in blaxploitation-era 1972. Following in the footsteps of fellow black superheroes Black Panther, Catwoman, Falcon and Green Lantern, Cage is one of the most well-known black superheroes in the world, complete with his superstrength and indestructible skin. Unlike other superheroes who saved others for the good of humanity, Cage would only act if there was a payday involved.

“He dropped the ‘hero for hire’ thing to tackle bigger problems,” said writer Keith Reid-Cleveland, who writes about superheroes for the website Black Nerd Problems. “A bit later on in his story, he actually becomes a leader for, like, an offshoot of The Avengers. He got promoted in a sense.” Over 40 years later, Cage is headed to the small screen as the first Marvel series with an African-American lead.

Luke Cage debuts at a critical moment in this nation’s history. With voting rights constantly abridged, mass incarceration strategically targeting young black men and women and the continued threat of police violence against unarmed black people, this character is necessary for a grieving community. The original Hero for Hire comic debuted alongside the rise of the Black Panther Party, the civil rights movement and the deaths of leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

“He was essentially a bulletproof black man, which had a whole lot of added weight to it during that time period,” Reid-Cleveland said. Fast-forward to the present day, and Luke Cage is a symbol society’s ripe for.

“When you look at Luke Cage,” Colter said, “visually, he fits the bill. He’s that large black man who’s wearing a hoodie, who is strong. And so it intimidates people, it makes people go, ‘Oh, that’s the image I fear.’ But what we’re also trying to do is turn that on its head, because Luke is a good guy in a hoodie, he’s a hero. … He’s a person that probably is just as well-suited to be a leader in the community on the council as he is a superhero.”

In the first episode, Cage is reluctant to issue justice against organized crime in Harlem despite his superhuman abilities. He doesn’t even curse. As Time recently pointed out, “Luke is … hesitant to use his strength. He carries himself with integrity and ease. He’s thoughtful and reserved.”

Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, a former music journalist, is hyperaware of the need for this sort of representation in 2016. “I always get asked: What makes Luke Cage different from any other character? Well, he’s black. … So, in dealing with a black superhero, you’re going to deal with ugly history, and the beauty of history,” he said in July.

A large portrait of The Notorious B.I.G. prominently hangs in the office of Cottonmouth, the show’s main villain.

Part of that ugly history is the N-word. Coker was steadfast in the show’s use of the word, saying he wanted to make audiences uncomfortable and “every single time that it’s heard for people to think about it.” Colter, on the other hand, believed it would be too much of a crutch to have a character like Cage use that kind of language.

“It’s easy for him to fall into the leisure-casual, flippant conversation and just drop the N-word every other sentence because everybody uses it,” Colter said. “I just don’t want someone to try to make me feel like it’s always a term of endearment, because the word was born out of hate. The word was born out of something derogatory that was meant to make us feel a certain way and to remind us of our place in society.”

The word is uttered on numerous occasions during the season, including when Cage himself drops it during a tense scene at the conclusion of episode two. But that struggle over the word’s use (Alfre Woodard’s character despises it, as well) is part of what makes the show so authentic. So black.

Not Atlanta black, or Empire black, or even black-ish black. Luke Cage’s authenticity comes from its self-awareness that African-Americans are complex human beings, and like Colter, you can’t just put them in a box. “This Luke Cage,” as science fiction blog io9 notes, “works as a conduit to a multiplicity of black experiences.” While there are catfish sandwiches with hot sauce, barbershop conversations about basketball and women — and a sneaked-in line about being “all up in the Kool-Aid” — there’s also a history lesson on Crispus Attucks and casual references to the works of authors Donald Goines, Walter Mosley and James Baldwin. Woodard’s character is a politician running on the campaign slogan of a “New Harlem Renaissance.” A large portrait of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. prominently hangs in the office of Cottonmouth, the show’s main villain. This all goes along with a dope, hip-hop-influenced score in the background. “I pretty much made the blackest show in the history of TV,” Coker told Wired.

When Colter first started acting 14 years ago, he turned down roles he felt relied too heavily on black stereotypes and tropes. Standing up for his principles could have derailed his career before it even got started, but instead he’s now assuming the most complex “work in progress” characters on television. And for a cinematic universe that’s had diversity problems for years, he’s now the “American black guy from the streets” whom people can relate to.

“We’re trying to make sure people are thinking when they’re watching this series,” Colter said. “And turning from these ideas of what a black man in a hoodie really means in society in 2016.”

A day after speaking with Colter for this story, 40-year-old Terence Crutcher’s car broke down in the middle of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, road. Once Tulsa police arrived, Crutcher had a brief interaction with the officers before — while his hands appeared to be in the air — he was tasered and fatally shot. Crutcher, unfortunately, wasn’t bulletproof.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"