Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

‘The Real’s’ Jeannie Mai is raising awareness of human trafficking in new film The talk show host is executive producer of ‘Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking’

According to the Department of Homeland Security, every year millions of men, women and children are trafficked in countries around the world, generating billions of dollars in profit, making it second only to drug trafficking in transactional crime.

These shocking statistics came as a surprise to Jeannie Mai, co-host of daytime TV show The Real, when she began raising awareness around this epidemic, in which only 2 percent of victims make it out alive.

Mai partnered with filmmaker Sadhvi Siddhali Shree as the executive producer for a powerful and raw documentary entitled Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking. With raw images of life on the streets, heart-pounding rescues and gut-wrenching personal stories, the documentary offers hope and empowerment, with hopes to engage others in a movement to end modern-day slavery and abuse on a global scale.

“It’s all about being woke to what’s happening in the world,” Mai said. “The word ‘trafficking’ is weird in itself and was invented just a few years ago to describe the selling and trading of human beings because we didn’t understand exactly what it was. It started off as sex slavery then modern-day slavery, and now it’s trafficking.”

Mai hopes to create awareness that leads to action. She spoke with The Undefeated about the documentary, as well as about working on The Real, the secret behind her positivity and how she defines success.


What’s the nature of Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking?

This film is gritty and, honestly, painful to watch, but it’s real. It will help people understand how human trafficking takes place 360 degrees around us. You’ll feel a calling to contribute to the movement after watching it.

What motivated you to get involved with the film?

It’s been my dream to put together a piece of art that would describe what human trafficking looks like. I joined forces with [Sadhvi] Siddhali [Shree], a beautiful woman, monk, Army veteran and powerful filmmaker. I fell in love with her passion, and we both had the same fervor to educate the world and get people more socially conscious about the brevity of trafficking.

What was your first experience becoming more hands-on with learning about sex trafficking?

I went to Thailand with an organization called NightLight and lived in a brothel for about three weeks. That’s where I really saw the darkness of these women’s lives. They’re trapped and voiceless, and their families are being used as pawns.

[It inspired another documentary I’m working on,] Along the Line, where we shot in Vietnam, Sa Pa, Thailand, to speak with three traffic survivors who shared what it was like to be enslaved, used, abused and manipulated, and how their lives are now as heroines. It’ll come out by early 2019.

What triggered the need to learn more about sex trafficking?

I didn’t know what it was until about eight years ago, when it happened to a family friend in Vietnam. Her uncle had sold her to a brothel as a sex slave to pay off the family debt. I was angry, disgusted and confused. I did research, made phone calls, spoke with government officials and then learned that this situation happens to millions of people every day. She is OK now.

Switching gears, what can we expect for the live airing of season four of The Real?

It’s going to be a fun season with more giveaways, money and amazing, heartfelt stories that’s going to teach you how to love yourself better. Loni [Love], Tamera [Mowry-Housley], Adrienne [Houghton] and I are able to remind women every day that they are valuable and worthy. All of us ladies on the show are a work in progress. We constantly share our hiccups, and we’re transparent about it.

What have you learned from your co-hosts?

First off, I’ve learned to love brown liquor because of Loni. Tam-Tam [Tamera] has taught me the power of poise. She is so poised in every situation of life. Adrienne teaches me about hopeless romantic love, and I’m just like, ‘Let’s get some Netflix and Cheetos.’

What’s the secret behind your positivity?

It’s from turning L’s [losses] into W’s [wins]. Like anyone else, I’ve gone through my own losses, whether that’s relationships, setbacks or insecurities. But when I look back, I really appreciate those experiences because being on the ground taught me how not to only get up, but to stand up and strut.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

There’s always going to be someone who won’t believe in your worth. Don’t let that person be you.

As a TV style expert, what got you into fashion?

I love fashion; it’s my armor. Fashion allows me to tell you my story before I get myself together to tell you. That’s what’s so powerful about it. Style is having that swag from the way you walk, talk, laugh, move your hands, type of vernacular you use. All of that comes together and you are a dope fashion piece, even if you only have a shirt and jeans on.

What’s your advice to women who don’t feel pretty?

Own your pretty, boo! It can be as simple as that you have a great smile or amazing ankles. Whatever it is, find it and highlight what that beautiful part is and dress the rest up. It starts there, and then from the ground up, boom, you bloom.

This survivor overcame domestic violence and sex trafficking and is helping others do the same Author Toshia Shaw inspires at-risk girls to find a meaningful life’s purpose through Purple W.I.N.G.S.

Sex trafficking continues to plague communities worldwide. The underground organized crime epidemic claims the innocence of young girls and boys every year. One survivor made a pact with God that if she were able to reclaim her life, she’d help others do the same.

Meet author, writer and motivational speaker Toshia Shaw.

She is a survivor who uses a hands-on approach to help women deal with traumatic events. She also advocates for women and girls through her Las Vegas nonprofit organization, Purple W.I.N.G.S. (Women Inspiring Noble Girls Successfully), which she launched in 2010.

“I give a voice to the voiceless because there are women who weren’t able to survive what I survived,” Shaw said. “They’re unable to tell their stories.”

According to the International Labour Organization, 20.9 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking and forced labor. Twenty-two percent of individuals are forcibly exploited for sex, 68 percent for private labor and 10 percent for state-imposed work, state military or rebel armed forces.

The 43-year-old activist identified a need and has worked tirelessly by lending a helping hand to her community. She believes she speaks for those who have died because of the trauma, the women who are incarcerated and those who have developed mental illness as a result.

Purple W.I.N.G.S. helps at-risk girls through mentoring and leadership development. The program mainly works with girls and teens of color who are living in poverty. According to its website, the organization’s victim services Angel program is deeply committed to mentoring women and girls who have been identified as victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence and stalking. Through this program, victims receive intense case management for at least one year. Girls participate in weekly two-hour supportive conversation circles, goal-setting programs, peer and adult one-on-one mentoring, and a variety of community-based activities.

Shaw herself is a victim of sex trafficking, but it doesn’t define her as the woman she is today.

“Having survived trauma myself, I made a promise to God that if I survive, then I will help other people,” Shaw said. “I believe that we’re placed on Earth to help someone else. I don’t believe that we’re here just to be selfish, to get all we can and forget our fellow man.”

At age 26, Shaw had two failed marriages, was a single mother and survived domestic violence. She was living in Memphis, Tennessee, with hopes and dreams of starting a new life for her and her son. The worst trauma in her life began one night when she met two men outside a nightclub.

“The driver urged me to skip the club and meet them for breakfast at a nearby restaurant,” she recounted. “Against better judgment, I agreed, and I jumped in my car and followed them.

“Once there, the conversation flowed. I told the driver, who I thought I had a connection with, all about how I had just arrived in Memphis, was looking forward to starting college and was looking for a job. He listened intently, and it was easy for me to open up to. I left the two men to excuse myself to the bathroom, but on my way back to the table I knew something was off. I ignored my intuition.

“When I returned to the table, the driver’s friend was nowhere to be found, and I became nervous. My new friend asked me to sit down. I was hesitant, and that hesitation quickly turned into panic when I realized I left my purse at the table. He sensed my worry and held up my purse in a sort of mocking gesture to insinuate that yes, I indeed had f—ed up and left it.

“This time he didn’t ask me to sit down — he demanded that I sit down. He scooted in so close to me I could feel his breath on the back of my neck, and the steel from the gun he had pressed on my thigh. He proceeded to tell me that I had found the new job I was looking for. I had walked into that restaurant a free woman, but I left as a sex slave. The cloak of victimization became heavier than ever before, and now I had taken victimization to a whole new level.”

Shaw escaped, but she doesn’t dwell on the specifics. “I made the choice to stand up for myself and refuse to continue with risking him making good on his promise that he would kill me or my family.”

Although her experiences caused her to contemplate suicide, she knew she had to be there for her young son. It took her years to get her life back together. She sought counseling and tried different avenues to help her cope.

Now she takes pride in her advocacy for women. She started Purple W.I.N.G.S. because there was a void in the Las Vegas area for mentorship to at-risk girls. Shaw went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in human services and an MBA from the University of Phoenix and is now an experienced human services professional who has gained vast knowledge working with at-risk youth, battered women and girls.

While interning at a local runaway shelter, which serves runaway and homeless youths, she noticed the staggering number of homeless and runaway girls entering the program. After extensive conversations with these young girls she noticed a pattern that involved the lack of communication and involvement in the lives of these young women by parents and responsible adults. The girls longed for direction, communication and something to do after school.

Thus, Purple W.I.N.G.S. was born. Shaw started out on a quest to fulfill most of the desires of girls like those at the runaway shelter. She enlisted the help of other professional individuals desiring to make a change in the community, including the Las Vegas Police Department.

“The effects of living in a hypersexual city can’t be ignored,” Shaw wrote on Purple W.I.N.G.S.’ website. “Girls see their likeness on billboards, in city newspapers, magazines, leaflets and pamphlets being portrayed as sex objects. They grow up knowing prostitution is legal in brothels only 90 minutes away from here; they understand that while prostitution is illegal within the city limits, there is an allowance of the conduct on the Strip.”

Purple W.I.N.G.S. has affected the life of 18-year-old Jasmine Williams, who was exploited at the age of 14.

“Purple W.I.N.G.S. has impacted it [in] so many different ways,” Williams said. “The main way my life was affected was just being able to speak out and have a voice. Women in the sex industry have their voices taken away from them. Purple W.I.N.G.S. gave me a platform to be able to speak my mind, gave me a place to be completely comfortable and open up about my past experiences and what I’ve been through, which allowed me to become more expressive and comfortable with talking about my past and helping me heal and move forward.”

Williams credits Purple W.I.N.G.S. for giving her the strength and courage to talk about her experience in the sex trafficking industry. She plans to open a group home to help young women and victims of the sex industry have a place to stay and feel safe, as Purple W.I.N.G.S. did for her.

“My life has changed tremendously,” Williams said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of an organization that really cares about me and my spirit. Toshia [Shaw] really cares where I end up in life, and it shows. She often checks on me and my family just to make sure I’m on track mentally and emotionally, and my goals she helped me set are being met.

“It really is a blessing to have her and other counselors from Purple W.I.N.G.S. a part of my life and available for me to reach out to and call. I don’t know where I would be without the positive impact [it] has had on my life. I am forever grateful.”

Shaw said that in the age of social media, it has become easier for others to be victimized. She said it has become extremely easy for pimps to recruit and find their victims.

“We have to fix it and realize it’s not just girls, women, who are victimized in human trafficking. Boys are victims too,” she said.

Shaw, a Memphis native, said she sacrifices herself for others to have courage to tell their own truths. She provides trauma life coaching for individuals through her program, The Pact. The author of three previous books, Shaw is currently working on her fourth book, titled The Pact, A Workbook to Get Unstuck and Awaken to Your Life’s Purpose, which will be released via Kindle and paperback on Amazon this summer.