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Black Lightning boss: 'This is an American story, this is not a black story'

EP Salim Akil breaks down The CW’s new midseason super series

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The CW

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The CW’s superhero slate is expanding even further with Black Lightning.

Slated for midseason, this update of the groundbreaking comic tells the story of electricity-manipulating metahuman Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), who has logged nine years as a high school principal when he is jolted out of superhero retirement after his own soon-to-be-super daughters are essentially threatened by local gang The One Hundred.

Developed by executive producers Salim and Mara Brock Akil, alongside Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, this Black Lightning’s battles are even more grounded in social justice than when Jefferson debuted as one of DC’s first African-American heroes in 1977. While topics like Black Lives Matter, race relations, and police brutality are on the docket, Salim Akil stresses, “This is an American story, this is not a black story… We’re going to be culturally specific, but universal in our themes so everyone can see themselves in these stories.”

Below, Salim Akil previews the new drama ahead of its Comic-Con debut. (Stay tuned for an exclusive first look of Jefferson building his new suit, along with an interview with Williams.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why Black Lightning? Where did the idea come from to tap into this character in particular?
SALIM AKIL: It was presented to us when we arrived here at Warner Bros. for our deal. They were so smart and they said, “We have this project and we think it would be perfect for you, Salim.” I agreed. It was just everything that I had been looking for in order to express my own voice and everything that Mara wanted and knew about me and was encouraging me to express myself. It was a no-brainer; that’s the easiest way to say it. It was just a no-brainer when you know the character.

Are there any particular Black Lightning runs from the comics that you’re inspired by?
The original was what I was inspired by because I just felt like — it may sound cliché — but I grew up in an area of the Bay Area that was tough; my life had been tough. And when you look at superheroes, of course you want to identify with them. I remember as a kid wearing the Batman costume for Halloween, and feeling empowered by that as a kid. When you see a superhero that looks like you, and lives in and fights in a neighborhood that is sort of like yours, it’s empowering to a degree that makes you have hope. That is the power of storytelling and that is the power of images. To go back to your first question why: That is the power, the power of images and the power of feeling connected to something right and something strong and something that can protect. So you can imagine if I had been that same kid in the Batman uniform, if I could’ve been that same kid in a Black Lightning uniform for Halloween, you can imagine how empowering that could be.

We’re getting more and more diverse superheroes these days — is it added pressure for you guys? Or are you honored to get to represent that?
It’s not pressure, it’s joy. I get the opportunity as a showrunner to present a hero to a community that’s underserved in terms of having superheroes. So it’s exciting to be able to be involved and to be at the forefront and the vanguard of that — if you want to call it a movement or a popularity or whatever it is — but I’m excited to be a part of it. My vision and my hope is that by the time that this airs, the next Halloween, little boys and little girls of color will have a Thunder and a Lightning and a Black Lightning costume. I know what that means and I understand how that feels. So, to have the opportunity to try to be a part of that is an amazing feeling. It’s a privilege and it’s a blessing.

Tell us about Jefferson as a character.
The beautiful thing about Jefferson is that he’s a dad, he is a husband who loves, he’s a principal who cares. All his human qualities are based in love and caring. As a superhero, he’s an extension of his personal life, right? Black Lightning is an extension of Jefferson’s personal life — the principal, the father, the husband, the friend, but then that’s what we can call the daytime Jefferson, the light Jefferson, but he also knows that there’s a dark side to the world, and he doesn’t want to just build a wall and stay on the light side of the things. He also has to deal with the dark side of things. So he is a willing soldier for the people in all aspects of who he is, and that’s what makes him special. His duality is the duality of Martin [Luther King Jr.] and Malcolm [X]: “I would prefer to educate and to love and to be peaceful, but I understand that there’s a different side.” And that Black Lightning side of him is Malcolm, who says, “There are some things that I have to do and react to in a way that I’m not going to turn the other cheek.” What an amazing duality and what an amazing conversation to have in one character.

Since the story picks up with Jefferson years after he hung up his suit, can you tease what brings him back into the world of being a superhero, and how he may feel about having to suit up again?
He’s reluctant. He did hang it up. He felt like he was saving more people by educating their minds and their souls than being out in the street as Black Lightning. But what brings him back — and this goes back to him being a father — is as your children grow, you can’t protect them from the world. They have to go out on their own, they have to do things on their own. In an act of innocence of just wanting to be free, one of his daughters goes out and it’s a ripple effect. Protecting his daughters is what brings him back initially. But he thinks it’s only for a moment, just to save his daughters, but what happens is it opens the door, and once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put it back when you’re a caring person, and Jefferson is a caring person. That’s what brings him back is the love for his daughters and for his community.

NEXT: How Jefferson compares to the other CW superheroes