In Praise of Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth in Marvel’s Luke Cage

This article contains major spoilers from the show. 

In the pilot of the Netflix superhero show Luke Cage, there is a scene which stands head and shoulders above all others. It is a scene involving the villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, and it is used so regularly in trailers, mentioned in countless reviews and retweeted on Twitter so many times, that Luke Cage himself should feel a little jealous. In the scene, Cottonmouth looms over a teenage boy he is about to beat to death. Behind him, a painting of Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie frames the scene, the crown on the rapper’s head resting on Cottonmouth’s own. He smiles, and the line drips from his lips both sweetly and ominously: “Everybody wants to be the king.”

Then, the ice-cool veneer drops away and he unleashes a ferocious slap at his victim. “I slapped you like a bitch,” he says. “I’m not the kind of man who use a closed fist on a woman.” Instead of giving up the location of the stolen money, the teenager spits at the crime lord. Cottonmouth laughs, the almost carefree, wide-mouth laugh that audience will see more and more of as the show progresses. He enjoys this. He loves the game, the anticipation, the fight. “Now I can hit you like a man,” he says, and then presumes to beat the boy to death, blood splattering onto his white shirt and dark face.

When his victim is dead, Cottonmouth tells his other cronies to dispose of the boy’s body and then looks straight at the camera, lips twisted in fury: “Now go fetch my money.”

None of this is subtle. Make no mistake, Luke Cage is not a subtle show. Yes, it has its quiet moments between characters, the lingering shots exploring the silences of its players, but fundamentally, it is a straightforward, almost by-the-book comic adaptation. The show does not hide away its imagery in boxes, waiting for the audience to unpack them. Instead, it is direct, to the point, and sometimes even veering on the corny side. Its male villains, Cottonmouth and Diamondback, are proof of this, especially with the latter who quotes bible verses every time he’s on screen and smiles evilly while declaring, “I’m the Angel of Death.” Cottonmouth has his own moments with statements like, “Jesus saves. I don’t.” If not for Mahershala Ali, these moments could have become laughable, but Ali plays them so well that he just straddles the line between the real and the comical. He pulls it off in ways that not many other actors can.

One of the biggest distinctions between Cottonmouth and the show’s other villain Diamondback is how personal the latter’s pursuit of Luke Cage is. In contrast, Cottonmouth’s fight with Luke is born out of necessity when our hero starts interfering with his shady business dealings. His initial lack of personal vendetta against Luke makes his own identity even more intriguing. Cottonmouth is interwoven into the fabric of Harlem in ways that other villains in the show (except for his cousin Mariah Dillard) are not. Mariah (the brilliant Alfre Woodard) works towards what she calls “the greater good” of Harlem, and she frequently tries to recruit her cousin to the cause. Cottonmouth laughs it off, says it’s all spin, but there are pauses in Mahershala Ali’s performance which suggest that the idea appeals to him, but he is now too far deep into the criminal world to leave it all behind. Still, he tries to grasp on to a shred of nobility, as he himself says, “Believe it or not, there are supposed to be rules to this shit.” 

Mahershala Ali inhabits the character beautifully, slipping between moments of vulnerability and rage with ease, it is almost painful to watch. One minute he is holding back tears after learning of the death of an old friend, the next he is throwing a man off a rooftop in anger. He is ruthlessly loyal to his cousin one day, then he baits her in the most disgusting manner the next. Here is a man who is capable of two extremes. Both his jovial laughter and his cool hard exterior are two sides of the same coin, somehow made equally charismatic and chilling by the actor who plays him.

One of the most impressive aspects of Ali’s performance is how much inner turmoil he gives Cottonmouth through the tiniest of actions and looks. As the show progresses, we learn of Cottonmouth’s backstory. The shy and reserved teenage Cornell Stokes is a talented pianist who wants to go to Juilliard, but eventually ends up running his family’s criminal business instead. This story gives context to the many scenes of the adult Cornell playing the keyboard in Harlem’s Paradise. These moments are brief, but Ali’s performance makes them unforgettable. The camera just lingers on his face in those scenes, and you can see the pain and sadness in Ali’s eyes, the conflict and the regret brewing in them.

‘If you go into playing these people and put your energy toward the anger and the violence, you disconnect yourself from the root of who these people are, who any character is,” said Mahershala Ali in an interview with Vulture. “I do believe that we all have real moments when we feel really weak or exposed or afraid or end up running up against certain things that are hindrances to attaining the life we see for ourselves. I really put my best energies into that stuff – the other stuff [like throwing someone off a roof] does the work for you. The audience is obviously going to react to that because it’s such a heightened thing to do. But in the other moments you really look for ways to craft those because they’re more important. And that’s the task with villains more so than any other characters in these kind of pieces. The task is for you to humanise them.”

Mariah’s and later Cottonmouth’s own insistence that he can be or could have been “something more” is surprisingly true. There is a potential to Cottonmouth’s character, fuelled by Ali’s meticulous performance, for either great nobility or great wrath. You can imagine him becoming a bigger villain in the story, but you can also imagine him embarking on a journey of redemption. It is tantalising how the character’s direction seems to rest on the flip of a coin.

Frustratingly, Cottonmouth is always a few steps behind Luke Cage, with the greater threat of Diamondback looming in the background. While watching, you are waiting for Cottonmouth to grab the situation by the throat and assert himself, to have a coming-of-age villain moment perhaps. This is why what happens in episode seven is so shocking. While the scene is amazingly acted and pivotal in the show’s narrative, losing Cottonmouth means losing the electric dynamic between him and his cousin. It means losing the character’s idea of black masculinity, which contrasts so fascinatingly with Luke’s. Most importantly, it also means the loss of Mahershala Ali from the show, and this might be the most heartbreaking loss of all.

Cottonmouth feels unfinished. For the audience, he still teeters between life and death, just as Cornell teeters between the dark and the light, the violence and the serenity. This conflict has become so delicious and enticing in Mahershala Ali’s delicate hands that whatever comes next seems to pale in comparison.

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