Black Lightning is unlike any of the CW’s other caped offerings — and not just because of its predominantly black cast. On The Flash, the Scarlett Speedster protects the multiverse from evildoers, and on Supergirl, the Girl of Steel fends off extraterrestrial threats. But on this new series — overseen by Arrowverse overlord Greg Berlanti — the superhero is more concerned with mortal-world problems.
“The conflict here is not necessarily saving the world or battling aliens,” says Cress Williams, who stars as the electricity-powered title character. “It really is looking at real-life problems in an actual city, in an actual neighborhood and trying to conquer those problems — i.e., drugs and corruption, gun violence, police violence, and just oppression that happens below the poverty line.”
When the show begins, Black Lightning the superhero is no more. There’s only Jefferson Pierce, a father who retired from crime-fighting nine years ago in order to keep his family together and now works as a principal of a charter school. However, when the local One Hundred gang threatens his daughters, Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and Anissa (Nafeesa Williams), he’s pulled back into the game. And it’s that focus on family also helps differentiate the drama from its network siblings.
“I started out thinking family drama first,” says showrunner Salim Akil, whose wife, Mara Brock Akil, is also an EP. “I wanted every person — Hispanic, white, black, Asian, whoever you are — to be able to recognize yourself.”
While Black Lightning wants to carve out its own path, Akil did borrow one thing from Berlanti’s other shows. “What [those shows] do really well is to lead you on a journey to a crescendo,” says Akil. “Often in my storytelling, we’ve been doing drama and comedy, and we didn’t necessarily lead to a crescendo. We led to a resolution. That’s what you do in dramas. But here, we’re leading to a crescendo.”
He says that this will be very evident in how Black Lightning’s story parallels that of the series’ main villain, Tobias Whale, the leader of the One Hundred gang played by newcomer and L.A. rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III. As Black Lightning works his way out from the community and sets his sights on where the drugs and guns are coming from, “Tobias is going to work himself up the food chain, and he’s going to do it ruthlessly,” says Akil.
Black Lightning premieres Tuesday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. (after The Flash) on The CW.