1:1 With Cheo Coker

Writer: Mark Edwards; Editor: Kadeem Pilgrim

Cross Colours had the opportunity to have a conversation with Writer-Producer Cheo Hodari Coker about film and music and how they affect the culture. Known for creating hit television shows and movies such as Luke Cage, NCIS Los Angeles, and Creed II, Coker spoke on how Hip-Hop has influenced him, how he incorporates that into his work, and how he views the importance of representation both narratively and aesthetically.  

Before Cheo worked in the film industry he was a notable music journalist. He gave us some insight into how he made that transition and how it affects his writing today. 

Coker started writing during his sophomore year at Stanford University. He had aspirations to write for publications like ‘Rolling Stone’ and covering topics on youth culture. But it wasn’t until he took on a summer internship with Newsweek while on break from college that he finally got his opportunity. 

“This was my first introduction to the concept of a phone interview. And to me, it's like, “you mean that ice cube was going to be on the phone for two hours and he's going to talk to anybody you tell them to talk to for 10 to 15 minutes!?” And they're like, “yeah.” So that was my first entrée into knowing that if I know the publicist, the publicist can put me on the phone with the artist and then I can interview them, then I can eventually write for my newspaper. I actually ended up doing that and from there I worked my way up while I was still a student to going from doing phone interviews, to when certain artists would come to the Bay area going and interviewing them backstage and then writing pieces. Because once you talk to somebody, you are equal to anybody, a bigger firm, a bigger publication. That's pretty much the first thing I learned. That you aspire to get to a place, but once you're actually talking to the same people that place is talking to, the only thing that separates you is how well you write your article.”

This lesson followed Cheo throughout his career and led him to other great opportunities, like interviewing the Notorious B.I.G.

“Well for me, everything for me has always been hip hop. That's even the reason why I've got, a photo of the Notorious BIG, the famous Barron Claiborne photo with the crown in Cottonmouth's office. It's not only an acknowledgment that hip hop is an important part of the Luke cage universe, but it's also kind of a shout out to the man to which I owe everything, the Notorious B.I.G. And the reason for that is writing about his life changed my life. From the time that I interviewed him for the first time, which was right after ‘Ready to Die’ came out was the first time I interviewed him. And then the last time I interviewed him, which was actually 36 hours before he was killed and had he called me back that night, we would have actually been in the car together because I was working on a black cover story, but writing the book, ‘Unbelievable:The Life Death and Afterlife of the Notorious, B.I.G’. led to me having the opportunity to adapt it as a screenplay.”

Music is a big part of Cheo’s life. He compared finding music and artists when he was younger to being an archaeologist. Cheo would often search through the backs of albums at a time where you couldn’t get songs instantly and for free. Today, his passion for music shines through in the film and TV shows that he develops.

Coker has worked on a number of projects featuring black protagonists, most notably the “Luke Cage” series (currently streaming on Netflix). 

TV and movie adaptations often have to battle between being faithful to the aesthetic of its comic book counterpart and realism.  We asked about the importance of costume design and why it matters for a character to look “right.”

“Black people, regardless of socioeconomic status always have pride in their appearance. They always want to look good. In the previous version of ‘Luke Cage,’ at least in Jessica Jones, Luke is dressed completely different in that show than he is in the version that I did. He's always wearing army fatigues these tee shirts and I just basically asked, ‘Why do you have Luke Cage dressed like a homeless veteran?’ And they're saying, ‘well because he's a fugitive, he doesn't have a lot of money.’ I said, ‘look, I know plenty of dudes that have no money at all but are the most stylish people that you see.’ So I said, ‘there has to be a different way of having different looks.’ So I'm getting them out of the leather jackets and he dresses based on the situation. So there are times in the show where he dresses up, there are times he dresses down, but you understand him as a character, that there's a function and there's a reason for everything that he does.”

Cheo also finds creative ways to tackle the social issues we’ve been dealing with for years. He sees how what a character wears on-screen can impact the audience's perception of that character. 

“His hero costume is a hoodie, but you put them in a hoodie because, on one hand, so many brothers wear hoodies so he doesn't stand out. But at the same time, there's a function to it because it becomes part of his iconography. Then you have a bulletproof character in a hoodie. That also is speaking in our own way about Trayvon Martin and about the politics of that tragedy and how he was murdered and what people think about black men in hoodies. This is our way of saying that a black man in a hoodie can also be a hero.“

Great minds like Coker’s who take the time to think about these things are ushering in a new era of entertainment. Whereas before black characters mostly occupied a small niche of mainstream cinema, now every year we see more and more movies and films with diverse casts. 

Cheo acknowledged that his peers helped push forward a new standard of entertainment and discussed how it inspired him to keep working and improving his craft. 

“I'm just trying to keep up with my brilliant peers. Do you know what I mean? It's like when you're pushed by people that are just elevating the game. The fact that I can just call them by single names and you know who they are. Every time I see what Eva, ISA or Donald or Ryan or Berry are doing I'm like, ‘OK well like I gotta step my game up.’ At the same time now it’s actually fun watching the Oscars because seeing people that I've worked with, that I know. So that inspires me to really hustle even harder. Cause like, like when I'm, when I'm seeing Virginia King accept the Oscars, I'm like ‘man, I wrote for Regina on Southland.’ And when I see Mahershala accept Oscars I'm like ‘man all those different cottonmouth speeches that I wrote that they just delivered to such perfection.’ It makes me say, ‘you know what, maybe if I keep at it, maybe one day I could hopefully aspire to, you know, to make it at that level.’”

Finally, Cheo spoke about what it takes to be like your peers and be successful in your field. His advice? Take at least 10 minutes a day to work on your craft and work on doing the stuff that you don’t want to do. 

“I hate new outlines, outlines suck. It's the worst part of the job. But if I don't go through the process of writing an outline, if I don't go through the process of, of the plotting and planning, I'll write myself in circles for weeks and I won't accomplish anything.”

Lastly, he gave probably the most important advice you could give to someone with a dream. 

Put this interview down and get to work.”