The essence of a city can transcend brick and mortar, becoming its own identity, forming an ideology or standing in for something much more than a location. Situated within New York City, Harlem is one of those places, drenched in a rich African-America culture.
Marvel's newest television superhero, Luke Cage, was born in Harlem and is as much a product of his environment as his bulletproof skin. Imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, Cage returns a reluctant hero who would prefer to remain low-key in the New York district than attract unwanted attention.
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Yet in the age of Black Lives Matter and what feels like never-ending news stories of racial profiling and unwarranted police shootouts, Cage is a superhero who is relevant and much needed, both on the screen and off it. With a hero based in Harlem, capturing the authenticity of the neighborhood was absolutely crucial, and something showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker was keen to achieve.
Luke Cage is subversive — lead actor Mike Colter portrays the first black superhero to get his own TV show — and a welcome antidote to the disturbing statistics of racism in America. The location is an integral part of that. In an interview with CBR, Coker explained the only way to portray Harlem accurately was to base filming on-location, in the streets, with those born and raised there. He said:
"The opportunity to film it in Harlem was irresistible. 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."
Considering the significance of Harlem in capturing black America, and how its streets become an essential part of the show, let's take a walk along Lenox Avenue and explore the real-life locations featured on the show:
The Paradise Club
Gangster Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali) owns Harlem's paradise club, a location that takes on significance in the show. Designed to capture the musical elements of Harlem, artists such as Charles Bradley, Faith Evans and Raphael Saadiq perform there in the show. While The Paradise Club doesn't exist in its own right, it is modelled on two venues in Harlem.
The first, Cotton Club, was a nightclub that was operation at the time of the American Prohibition era, between the years of 1923 to 1935, and later between 1936 to 1940. It was originally situated on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, before it reopened in the midtown Theater District. Despite regularly featuring black musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, the club had a strict "whites-only" policy.
The second inspiration, The Lenox Lounge, is located at 288 Lenox Avenue. The bar, which was founded in 1939, played host to iconic jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. Human rights activist Malcolm X was a patron of the venue.
Although not a direct inspiration to the show, The Apollo Theater, still up and running in Harlem today is regarded as one of the most iconic music venues in the world. It also hosted the television show, Showtime at the Apollo, from 1987 to 2008.
When we are first introduced to Luke Cage, he's sweeping up at Pop's Barbershop to earn his way. The business is owned by Henry "Pops" Hunter (Frankie Faizon), Luke's father figure. The venue serves as the biggest indication of the level of devotion the production had to keeping all things Harlem; in his interview with CBR, Coker added:
"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. If we have a Harlem location that works and fits, let’s shoot on the block."
Many of the locations on the show are filmed on Lenox Avenue, also known as Malcolm X Boulevard. In his poem Juke Box Love Song, Langston Hughes refers to Lenox Avenue as "Harlem's Heartbeat," and it's not hard to see why.
The area was at the center of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, a movement sparked by the growth in the arts and other creative ventures, helping place Harlem on the map as the world's capital of African-American culture, and in particular jazz music.
Mount Morris Park Historic District
Another filming location related to Lenox Avenue is the Mount Morris Park Historic District, a significant area spanning 16 blocks in West Harlem. In 1971, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a historic district.
Although years ago a crime ridden neighbourhood notorious for drug dealing, due to gentrification the area has now become an exclusive spot, with some apartments fetching up to $3 million on the market.
Luke Cage is available to stream on Netflix from today. Check out the trailer below: