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