In any superhero story, it’s the villain that matters most. A hero is nothing without the right foil, and in the world of superhero film and television, that is even more true. Just in the last year, Avengers: Infinity War soared on the strength of its villain Thanos, and Justice League sunk under the weight of the turgid Steppenwolf.
Why did Luke Cage season one soar? It wasn’t because of Luke Cage himself, as the second season, now available on Netflix, has done the work of developing Luke that season one did not. In many ways, it was because of its themes, its setting, its music, and its villain—Cottonmouth, played by the incomparable Mahershala Ali.
Soon after Luke Cage launched, Mahershala Ali stopped being one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets and rightfully became one of its brightest stars, as his turn in Moonlight won him an Oscar.
But something happened at the end of season one—Cottonmouth died. It was a move so shocking Cheo Hodari Coker, the show’s creator, has described it as his version of the famous twist in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. There’s no replacing a villain like Ali’s Cottonmouth—so for the show to move on, they would have to find a completely different power to tap.
Enter Mustafa Shakir. Playing Bushmaster, he is a much different kind of villain—one much less decidedly villainous but nonetheless intimidating, one challenging Cage’s own enemies, entering into this world with a different mindset than it has seen before. Shakir is used to playing up his physicality to great effect, also co-starring in HBO’s sleeper hit The Deuce as Big Mike, soon to return for its second season.
In person, Shakir is no villain—he’s warm and amiable, quick to find a way to connect.
“I like your pin,” Shakir says to me in London, pointing to the Spock head on my lapel.
“Thanks man,” I say.
“That’s the best one to wear today. When I don’t have a beard, they call me the black Leonard Nimoy,” he says.
“When you hold our pictures side by side, there’s a resemblance. It’s actually weird. Fun fact!” Shakir laughs.
Shakir got involved in Luke Cage through his agents who got him the audition—he had told them he wanted to get into the comic book world, having previously stated that he would love to play a character such as Spawn or Blade.
For Bushmaster he had one goal in mind: “I just wanted to be honest. I wanted to tell the story in a way that I could get in this guy’s skin and be honest to that story and tell it,” he says.
Bushmaster is of Jamaican background, something Shakir was very conscious to not perform lazily.
“I did not want him to be some caricature, you know what I mean? You could really go corny with it and not from the belly. Stereotypical Jamaican things. There was a moment where I wanted to have a track suit on. I was like, ‘why don’t I fight in a track suit’? They said, ‘no it’s too on the nose’. I was like, ‘your right!’ You can’t play into the stereotypes because it’s so easy. When you say Jamaican some people immediately think, Hey Mon! It’s a culture that’s really easy to project on,” he says.
Shakir dug into Jamaican culture—easy for him as it’s already so present in New York, where he grew up.
“I watched every bit of movie that I could ever watch. I listened to Nyabinghi music until I wanted to throw up but that never happened because I love Nyabinghi music, it actually moved me, very soulful. I inundated myself with all different cultural aspects form music to food. Growing up in New York, I had a lot of experience with the Caribbean. It wasn’t that far removed from me. It was about triggering my subconscious to spring for what I know,” he says.
“What movie did you watch most?”
“The Harder They Come. A million times. In my sleep,” he says..
The music of season two, according to Shakir, is again a stand out. Watching fusion-blues musician Gary Clark Jr. perform on set was what stuck with Shakir most.
“Stephen Marley brings it too. Rakim, KRS—but I got to see Gary Clark, and the way that he was playing that guitar, man, and playing his instrument, he is in it. He zoned every take. He’s a real artist,” he says.
With Luke Cage, Shakir believes they are doing something truly important.
“A bullet proof black man in a hoodie in America? What a political statement that is in and of itself,” he says.
But still, Luke Cage is never the perfect hero, nor Bushmaster the mustache-twirling villain—part of what makes season two of the show succeed.
“None of us are as black and white as we are led to believe. A hero does things that are questionable. Villains have feelings. We’re way more multidimensional than we have been portrayed in the past. Gray is better than black and white.”