The CW’s new series, Black Lightning is based on the DC Comics character of the same name, created by Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden in April 1977. He was DC Comics first African American superhero.
Cress Williams stars as Jefferson Pierce, the principal of a charter high school in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence. What his students don’t know is that nine years before he was a masked vigilante called Black Lightning, who cleaned up the streets of his city with his ability to harness and control electricity. But after too many close calls, he decided to hang up that identity to be with his two daughters, Anissa and Jennifer.
But with the crime in his city of Freeland becoming unbearable, Pierce once again dons his costume and reignites his super powers to protect the innocent.
The tv series is created by Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, who are also the Executive Producers. The show premieres on The CW on Tuesday, January 16th 2018 at 9pm.
Salim Akil and Cress Williams came to the TV Critics tour to discuss their new take on the comic book character and his universe.
This series Black Lightning could have been just an action show, but there are very serious community issues addressed in it. Why did you decide to make it as serious and community-minded as you did?
Salim Akil: I just drew from my life. The character of Jefferson is already a community-based superhero [Black Lightning]. He’s already a principal; he’s already a father. So, it gave me the opportunity to talk about things that were personal to me.
I grew up in a community like Freeland. I was surrounded by those things that you see in Freeland and in Chicago, Oakland and Watts. So, it came naturally. It wasn’t a choice made out of, hey, this is what we want to say; it came out of a choice of this is what I know. I guess the word people are using now is ‘authentic.’ So, let’s do what’s authentic and real to me, which I think everybody embraced.
Cress Williams: As artists, we want to entertain, obviously, but when you see what’s going on in the world, the job of art is, also, to speak to it and be impactful. I can only speak for myself that once I leave this planet, I want to know that something that I did made a difference. And so, I was just ecstatic. This is an amazing opportunity to entertain but, also, to speak to life.
It’s unusual on The CW to have a show that centers around an adult superhero. Was there any kind of a conversation with The CW to say that this guy has quasi-grown children, and he is the age he is?
Salim: The only conversation was, ‘Hey, Salim, how do you see it? What do you want to do? We’re behind you.’ I know a lot of people like to hear about the tug and pull and the drama, but there really was no drama. There was great support. But that was the comic as well, right? So, we were just doing what Tony Isabella and those guys already set a pattern for.
Cress, when the Black Lightning comics launched back in the ’70s there weren’t a lot of superheroes of color starring in their own comic book.
With you starting the Black Lightning TV show, do you feel like history is repeating itself a little bit with that?
Cress: I think history is repeating itself, but wonderfully, we’re not the only ones repeating it. I think it’s beautiful that we have Luke Cage; that we have us, and we have Black Panther, so we’re conquering every possible outlet. I think there’s an animated black Spiderman coming. And, so, I’m stoked.
As the kid all I had was Superman. We have so many things to choose from. And I hope that that keeps growing, not only for African Americans but for every ethnicity, gender, religion. I think it’s important that I want ideally everyone to be able to look and go, that’s me. I want them to find some sort of representative that they grow up and can look to the screens and say, ‘Yeah, I see me, I see me there.’ Not just for us, but for everyone.
Did you feel like you needed to go back and look at those comics for research material or did you just rely on the script?
Cress: Yeah, I did. I love superheroes. Unfortunately, I was (poor) and I didn’t buy a lot of comics because that’s a lot of money. So, I relied and was raised on television. My influence of superheroes was on TV.
I immediately went back and read not only the (comics from the) ’70s, I went chronologically. I read the ’70s, I read the ’90s, and I read the 2000s.
Black Lightning is The CW’s first African American superhero. How does his take on basic issues, like truth and justice, differ from that of other superheroes? And why does he turn down membership in the Justice League, and join Batman’s Outsiders instead?
Salim: Those are really good questions. I will say this with all due respect, but they’re not really relevant to the show that we’re doing. The great thing is that Warner Bros and The CW allowed us to create our own world. And we really wanted folks to get to know this family before we started branching out.
So, to answer your question about the other universe, Justice League, that’s not really a part of our world. We are dealing in a world that is as real as we can do it in the way that we want do it.