The power brokers behind film and TV are only now just barely beginning to maybe understand the value of diverse writers’ rooms, and the importance of having people behind the screen who reflect the identities being explored on screen. Which makes Cheo Hodari Coker’s accomplishments as the showrunner of Luke Cage significant. Not only did he make a great show, but he created it with the help of an inclusive, majority non-white writers’ room.
Talking to Syfy Wire ahead of AfroComicCon 2020, Coker talked about that experience and the values and insights that shaped it.
“As a showrunner, I set the tone,” Coker said. “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.”
That led to Coker building a writers’ room that was majority Black, with an emphasis on openness and helping people flourish — embracing all parts of themselves. As he put it, “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.”
The opportunity to create such a room, Coker said, was one that came with a significant amount of challenge, and motivated him to give young writers of colour something he struggled to get: the benefit of the doubt.
“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?’” Coker said. “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.”
So he gave that benefit of the doubt to some of his writers, like Matt Owens, who was a writer’s assistant on Almost Human and joined the room for Luke Cage. For Coker, that was essential: to pass on opportunities and give creators an opportunity to shine.
Over three seasons of Luke Cage, that’s an approach that produced strong results. For more, check out the whole interview with Syfy Wire.