The CW

Black Lightning Is 'For The Culture,' Says Series Star

The cast and creator of 'Black Lightning' on telling a grounded superhero story and the 'negative' side of powers

So you thought Barry Allen was the only DC character who could generate electricity, huh? On Tuesday night (January 16), Black Lightning made his long-awaited debut on the small screen, and in lieu of using an adjective like "electrifying" to describe the premiere episode — though, it's completely apt — I'll just say this: It's about time.

Created in 1977, Jefferson Pierce, under his superhero alter ego Black Lightning, was the first black character to headline a DC Comics title. Forty-one years later, and the meta-human with the power to harness electricity is now the subject of his very own television show. But what separates Black Lightning from the rest of The CW's superhero roster — aside from the fact that it's not part of the extended Arrowverse (yet) — is that it's a mature, grounded story told through the lens of a black man living in America today. The story may take place in the fictional city of Freedland, but the drama draws from the very real topical issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and gang violence. And it doesn't hold back.

That has everything to do with the creative team behind it: Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil. In addition to executive producing the series, Salim Akil also serves as showrunner, and his first order of business was to fill his writers' room with predominantly black staffers. For the Akils, their writers, and the cast, Jefferson Pierce's story as a black man and a father of two strong-willed young black women is a personal one.

"I knew that with Mara and Salim at the helm we'd be safe," Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce) told MTV News at the DC in D.C. event over the weekend. "I knew that it would be authentic and that it would be real. This is for the culture. I'm on a billboard with cornrows. Little black girls in inner cities need to see that and see themselves when they tune in."

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Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce in Black Lightning.

As Anissa, Jefferson's eldest daughter, Williams is also breaking new ground as TV's first black lesbian superhero. "Young lesbian women need to see that visual of themselves," she said. "We don't see it enough, and it's necessary. Her parents are really open and accepting of her sexuality and maybe that will inspire some parents who are watching."

In Black Lightning, black aesthetics are as essential to the storytelling as the superhero mythology. From the visual of Jefferson being pushed to the ground by two white cops while Anissa records it on her phone to the music that's both featured and referenced in the series — since when have SZA and Afropunk been name-dropped in a CW series? — the Akils know their audience. Opening the series with Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" was a pointed decision, one that sets the tone for what's to come.

"In our work, we've always used music to help tell the story or to help accentuate the story," Salim Akil told MTV News. "Nina Simone, to me, singing about black culture — she's unparalleled. So to begin the show with Nina and to end the show with Gil Scott Heron was a great bookend. To use Jack White in the fight scene, to use Isaac Hayes and the other music that you hear, I just wanted to say that this was American culture. This was American music. It's time for us to acknowledge that, yes, African-Americans made this music, but it's not separate from America."

That cultural nuance is yet another way that Black Lightning distinguishes itself from other comic book dramas. Not to mention, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a father first and superhero second. In many ways, Black Lightning is a family drama, as Jefferson's daughters Anissa and Jennifer (China Ann McClain) play significant roles in both the series and the comics — eventually taking up the superhero mantle themselves as Thunder and Lightning, respectively.

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China Ann McClain as Jennifer Pierce in Black Lightning.

"Their voices are very strong right from the beginning," Akil said of Anissa and Jennifer's coming-of-age journeys. "The great thing about how it develops is that Jefferson stepped away from being a superhero and using his powers, so you got to think about how it feels for him to get back into it and then discover that his daughters have powers. We don't approach these powers like they're all good. There's a negative side to it. And he's going to be worried about how the negative side affects their lives."

So it's no surprise that Anissa and Jennifer also have completely different reactions to their powers. For Jennifer, "she feels like she was saddled with this, like she didn't have a choice," McClain said. "It's a burden for her." Meanwhile, Anissa, an activist who has no qualms standing up to gang members and marching on the frontline while quoting Fannie Lou Harner, embraces them.

"Anissa, like her father, believes that this is her purpose and that this is what she was born to do," Williams said. "So she's really excited to get into it... she wants to save people and save her community."

Black Lightning may be Jefferson Pierce's second act — but it's also Anissa and Jennifer's superhero origin story. That alone is worth watching.


VMAs 2018