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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

Because he has these years of experience as a superhero, how is Jefferson a different hero than Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, or any of the Legends of Tomorrow?
Well, one, he’s older. [Laughs] He’s got aches and pains, he’s not as useful, and that is something that is unique. Two, there are not many superheroes going into Chicago, going into Watts, going into the areas and dealing with the issues that Black Lightning is going to deal with, and I think that’s unique. His villains are people that viewers hear about and read about every day. I think that’s unique. The third thing is he’s black. [Laughs] We don’t have a lot of black superheroes. I’m happy about it, because there’s a resurgence of it, but it’s still not totally representative of our culture, so amongst all the different so-called black superheroes, Jefferson stands alone and unique in the fact of who he is as a person. Again, he’s a father, he’s older, he’s wiser. To your point, he’s spent years doing this and then he hung it up. He’s a husband, he’s a principal. He is a man of man colors, no pun intended. That’s what makes him so identifiable so you can relate to him. His uniqueness doesn’t just rely on the fact that he’s a black superhero; his uniqueness is that he’s as human as everybody in America. That’s what makes him a beautiful character to explore.

The Black Lightning comics were really great about tapping into social issues still relevant today. Do you plan on following suit with the show and touching on Black Lives Matter and how the cops feel about Black Lighting?
All of that and more. It’s a wonderful platform to have an American conversation. What we all need to understand is that this is an American story, this is not a black story. This is an American story seen through the eyes of someone who happens to be a black man. Now we do black on purpose, but he is an American. He’s an Olympian who represented his country well. He is the American dream. Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce, is the American dream. It’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with everyone about a myriad of things. It’s not just Black Lives Matter; his daughter is a lesbian. We’re going to have conversations about what that means in America and in families. So that’s a whole other conversation that we’re going to have. We’re excited because we’re going to represent conversations that are happening in America, but through the prism and the cultural specificity — we’re going to be culturally specific, but universal in our themes so that everyone can see themselves in these stories.

Does Jefferson hail from this earth or an entirely separate universe that’s not connected to the other CW superhero shows?
Jefferson is on planet earth 2017-2018. From my perspective, the reason that we walk down this road was because, let’s all be honest, the majority of people may know the title Black Lightning, but they don’t really know who Jefferson and Black Lightning is, and I felt like it was very, very important for us to get to know who he is and who this character is and what his wants and needs and vulnerabilities are before we start introducing a lot of other things into that. That’s the main reason: I want people to get to know this family. I want them to get to understand what kind of villains that he’s fighting. There ain’t many superheroes down in the ghetto, or so-called ghettos. The communities that Jefferson and Black Lightning is trying to save is the communities like Chicago, Watts, all of the things that we see on television, those are very real villains and very real heroes. We want to explore through Jefferson and Anissa and Jennifer’s eyes, and Gambi’s eyes, we want to try to understand these communities not just as victims, but as hard-working people, blue collar people, who are caught in some very f—ed up circumstances, but it doesn’t make them less than, and we shouldn’t ignore them. One of the things that Black Lightning will do, and Jefferson will do, is be able to introduce the humanity of the people who are caught in these communities. So I didn’t want to distract from that, and I didn’t want to distract from us getting to know Jefferson, Jennifer, and Anissa, or Black Lightning, Thunder, and Lightning. I wanted people to get to know them first.

Now, you know, everything is possible. But hopefully this season everybody will just get to know them and get to respect them and accept them for who they are before we start making other moves.

So there’s a future in which they could cross over?
Yeah, I’m not opposed to it at all.

What are some of the cool things your version of Black Lightning can do logistically? What does his new suit provide him?
One thing I think will be interesting is that it will allow him to recover and to maintain his powers, because our Black Lightning is vulnerable. The suit that I wanted to create — and Laura Jean Shannon, who is an amazing designer and designed the suit — what we wanted to invoke was we’re protecting him from his vulnerabilities. Age is one, but also the biggest thing in these communities that we’ve been talking about is the fact that there are a lot of guns out there, right? This suit, unlike what we perceived as the first suit, is bullet proof. Most kevlar, [a bullet] hits you and you feel it. This particular suit, it hits you and you can almost smile and say, “You didn’t touch me.” I call it liquid kevlar, and I don’t even know if it exists. My brother-in-law, who happens to be in the military, when he saw me saying, “liquid kevlar,” he laughed at me like, “Oh yeah, you really are a writer.” [Laughs] That’s one of the aspects of the suit that I really like, that it’s sexy, it makes Cress look great, but we understand he’s an older superhero and it needs to help him regenerate. That will be exciting and fun. Other than that, I’m not telling you anything else. [Laughs]

At ATX, you guys said you wouldn’t be doing a villain of the week. Why not go that route?
I’m sure you’ve read Moby Dick. When I read Moby Dick, I really understood the whale. No pun intended, but I really did, I got the point of view. So, in my storytelling, I really do want to understand the villain. What is motivating you to be this villain? What’s your backstory? What was your childhood like? A superhero is only as good as his villain, so I wanted to tell the story of the villain and I didn’t feel like I could do that if I was bringing a different villain in every week. I want people to understand, because I grew up around people who were considered villains, considered very horrible people, but because I grew up with them and went to school with them, I knew what their issues and their problems were. That didn’t excuse their behavior, but it did complicate the idea of them being this horrible person. It complicated it, because you knew the human side of them. Some of these people that I knew, who had done horrible things, were also some of the people who had helped me out of horrible situations. I really wanted to have the viewers understand why Tobias Whale is, was, and will be the way that he is. I think that makes the story that more dynamic and that more exciting. So that’s why I didn’t want to do a villain of the week.

So what will we actually see with Tobias Whale and The One Hundred?
Building on what we were just talking about, that’s what you’ll be seeing: You’ll get a very different look at what a villain is. What you can expect looking at The One Hundred and Tobias is an exploration into why they are the way that they are, and not just twirling the mustache villain.

How do you think Black Lightning, as a show, is different from the other superhero shows?
Well, the obvious answer would be that it’s black folk, right? I don’t know if there’s another black family on The CW, but that’s too easy because ultimately the difference is that it’s where they live and the subject matter and the true Americaness of who this family is. Seeing through the eyes of Jefferson, Anissa, and Jennifer, to really see that these are Americans striving to be better people, to be good people, to live a life that is not only good for themselves but additive to their community. I hope that if we’re successful, we’ll be able to all look at Jefferson and his daughters and be as proud of them as we were when we saw President Obama and his wife and children in the White House. It was a proud moment for us, regardless of how you felt about his politics. That moment said something about America that we had been saying was possible, and what we stood for for a very long time. One generation up out of Jim Crow, we had an African-American president whose name was Barack Hussein Obama. That says a lot about who we are as Americans, and I hope that this family, people will look at this show not as, “Oh, there’s the black superhero family,” but, “Hey, there’s an American superhero family and we can identify with them,” and I think that that’s what makes it different.

Black Lightning will debut midseason on The CW. Stay tuned for our interview with Cress Williams on suiting up as the title character.