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Every great superhero film or show is elevated by its villain. In Marvel’s Luke Cage Alfre Woodard smolders as the ambitious and ruthless Mariah Dillard, Queen of Harlem. The local councilwoman comes from “old money,” stacked high and wide on the misdeeds of her cousins, The Stokes. In season one, she walked the line of being adjacent to crime without getting her hands dirty, but in a moment that changed both the series and her character, she took the life of her cousin Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, leaving her to pick up the pieces of the criminal empire.
“Mariah’s whole raison d’être is that she is protecting and moving forward into the 21st century the family legacy and the family name,” Woodard tells BET.com. “There’s a part of her name that she has not wanted to embrace…the name that they’re standing on—the reason that they’re standing on top in Harlem and very near the top in New York City—is a name, like most American fortunes, built on less than legal pilings. But she comes to embrace that name as she protects that legacy, actually honors the legacy. She is married into the Dillard family and she identifies as a Dillard. But as she grows and grows and grows she starts to embrace all of the her names and legacy.”
In season two Mariah has a lot of family matters to contend with, particularly with her daughter, Tilda, played by Gabrielle Dennis. Tilda, also known as Nightshade is a neighborhood pharmacist with special gifts who also must reckon with her lineage.
“I think culturally and historically we didn’t own much of anything. You know, the name comes with a reputation,” says Dennis. “And I think for Tilda she takes pride in the family legacy and loving her parents and wanting to be a part of that. So I think names are important, they’ve always been important. Will always be important.”
On top of tending to family matters, Mariah is trying to come clean and “go legit,” but old family ghosts, namely in the form of a new villain, Bushmaster, threaten her plans. But Woodard isn’t in the mood to study the Jamaican “Badman” today.
“I don’t know what he’s on about, frankly,” she says with a playfully dismissive scowl. “You know he’s coming very late to the scene from Jamaica and frankly I don’t concern myself with what that person wants. I’ve got business to do.”
“He’s this scary presence,” says Dennis. “He comes with a little edge to him. People will get to know a little bit more about Bushmaster and just how scary and dangerous he actually is…”
“Or thinks he is,” Woodard corrects.