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

‘Black Lightning’ joins the CW’s suite of superheroes Television Critics Diary: Network revives the ’70s DC Comics superhero ‘for the culture’

PASADENA, California — A black superhero has finally joined the CW’s ever-expanding DC universe, and his name is Black Lightning.

It’s probably best not to make him angry, unless you’re really into being electrocuted, but you can see for yourself when the series debuts Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.

Black Lightning is different from the CW lineup of superhero shows because its focus is on a hero who considers himself to be retired. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is the principal of Garfield High School, a safe space from the violence that’s plaguing his community, called Freedland. Freedland has been under attack from a gang called The 100, led by a villainous albino named Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) who maaaaaaybe has some issues with black people even though he is one.

For instance, in the midst of an evil tirade, Whale refers to one of his lieutenants, Lala, as “thick-lipped” and a “darky.”

Pierce has tried to put his Black Lightning days behind him — he got tired of being seen as anti-cop. And his ex-wife and the mother of his two children (played by Christine Adams) left him because she thought he was addicted to being an electrified vigilante. But he’s pulled back into his alternate identity to save daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), who keep getting into scrapes with Whale’s goons. Black Lightning, which is inspired by the original 1970s DC comic, begins with Pierce realizing his indignation with police violence and gang violence are bringing the blue flash back to his eyes.

The show gets more interesting as Anissa realizes she may have some superpowers of her own. That’s not a secret — the CW has already released images of Anissa dressed as Thunder.

“You know, you have a superhero with her hair in cornrows,” said co-executive producer Salim Akil. “That’s for the culture.”

At a panel discussion here Sunday, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans winkingly asked married co-executive producers Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil why they decided against recreating Black Lightning’s curly Afro.

“You know, if I put that Afro in there, black people would’ve ran me out of town,” Salim Akil said. “You know damn well if I put in that Afro —”

Mara interjected. “ — Or with chest hairs out. We can’t do that. No. No.”

“You know, if I put that Afro in there, black people would’ve ran me out of town.”

Although there’s no Afro, there are nods to the ’70s comic in the show’s music, as well as the car driven by Lala (Will Catlett).

The Akils, the couple behind Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane, were on hand with Williams and the rest of the Black Lightning cast for one of two CW panels at the Television Critics Association press tour. The group was bubbly and energetic, which temporarily mitigated the cloud that’s hanging over the network at the press tour. That cloud comes from Andrew Kreisberg, the former executive producer and co-creator of The CW’s suite of superhero programming — including The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow and Supergirl — who was fired in November 2017 after allegations of sexual harassment from multiple staffers.

Kreisberg worked closely with Greg Berlanti, the executive producer in charge of the DC universe on the CW, who also has a co-creator credit on Black Lightning.

“I know a lot of you asked for journalists here at CW day to find answers on some of the darker disappointing deeds behind your favorite shows and just know that many reporters here are *trying,*” tweeted Vanity Fair senior writer Joanna Robinson, addressing the CW’s conspicuous lack of an executive Q&A with CW president Mark Pedowitz. “I promise you.”

How ‘Black Lightning’ director Salim Akil co-created the show and why The buzzy ‘Black Lightning’ is a reflection of director Salim Akil’s family values

Audiences have of course always loved a good hero, but with projects such as Netflix’s Luke Cage and Disney’s Black Panther garnering ratings, massive hype and viral hashtags such as #BlackPantherSoLit, black superheroes are enjoying a true renaissance on screen. On May 17, The CW Network rolled out the first trailer for its new show Black Lightning, and once again it was clear from the response on social media that fans can’t wait to see DC Comics’ first African-American hero on TV. By midnight Thursday, the trailer had more than 392,000 views.

Introduced as a comic in 1977, Black Lightning follows Jefferson Pierce, a former Olympian turned principal in the “Suicide Slum” section of the fictional city of Metropolis. Though he was born a metahuman and has several superhuman abilities, Pierce suppresses his powers in a bid to keep his family safe. When his neighborhood is overrun by crime, however, Pierce begins to embrace his destiny to help clean up the streets and protect those he loves most. The show, which has no exact premiere date, stars Cress Williams (Prison Break, Hart of Dixie, Living Single), China Anne McClain (House of Payne, NCIS, Descendants 2) and Nafessa Williams (Code Black, Twin Peaks, Burning Sands).

While studios continuously mine their archives for profitable content, the driving forces behind Black Lightning are Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the husband-and-wife team responsible for such hits as The CW and BET’s The Game, The CW’s Girlfriends and BET’s Being Mary Jane. After leaving BET and signing a development deal with Warner Bros. in 2015, the Akils took a year off to search for their next project. During a meeting with Peter Roth, the studio’s president and chief content officer, Salim Akil floated the idea of adapting one of Milestone Media’s comics for the screen. While that didn’t pan out, Roth proposed a different idea: Black Lightning.

“I was somewhat familiar with Black Lightning, so I played it cool — but I wanted to jump out of the chair.”

“They said, ‘We had this thing we were holding for you guys called Black Lightning,’ ” Salim Akil said in February at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. “I was somewhat familiar with Black Lightning, so I played it cool — but I wanted to jump out of the chair.”

The Akils were soon on board, but it wasn’t just the prospect of working on a comic that attracted them to the project. Salim Akil, the father of two boys, fell in love with the character. “I want to reintroduce the black male to television in a certain way,” he said. “What I loved about the character is that he’s married and he has two daughters and is connected to the community. That was right up my alley. That gave me the opportunity to go hard on some of the things I wanted to talk about.”

The dedicated family man continued, “To me, the most amazing aspect of [the story] is that he’s a principal, and a father, and he’s a man who’s in love with his wife. They’re separated, but the only reason they’re separated is because of his powers and the way his powers affect him as a man.”

Although Salim Akil rarely participates in interviews, the director penned an open letter to his 12-year-old son on The Hollywood Reporter after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. In the letter, he reflected on the burden that black people, and in particular black men, face in society. While he took America to task for its “unquenched desire to control [black people],” which “began hundreds of years ago when your relatives were brought here across the Middle Passage to be sold,” Salim Akil also gave his son some defiant and valuable advice.

“If you’re trying to dumb … down to be acceptable, then you’ve dismissed and let go of your power.”

“You were made black on purpose,” he explained, echoing his production company’s motto. “God did that, so I want you to dance in the end zone, dunk the ball with beautiful creativity, become a police officer or a fireman, celebrate when you pass the bar exam, finish your medical residency, ride with your top down and play your music loud, wear your pants low on your hips or tie your neck up with a Windsor knot, find a woman like Diamond Reynolds and marry her quick. What I’m asking you to do, son, is after the tears dry, live. Live life ‘by any means necessary!’ ”

The letter also mirrors Salim Akil’s advice to black creatives in Hollywood.

“The perception is that if you’re too black, you’re not going to make it, but that perception is there so you don’t claim what is viable in the world,” he said on that February evening. “I think it’s time to claim the idea that when you go into these rooms, the expertise is you. If you’re trying to dumb that down to be acceptable, then you’ve dismissed and let go of your power.”

With Mara and Salim Akil at the helm of Black Lightning, it looks like audiences are in for a smart, unapologetically black hero who is perfect for these arduous times.