DC TV Watch: A 'Black Lightning' Primer With Creator Salim Akil

The CW's newest superhero series is unlike any that's come before. Creator Salim Akil sits down with The Hollywood Reporter to detail exactly why.
Courtesy of The CW
Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter's weekly DC TV Watch, a rundown of all things DC Comics on TV. Every Friday, we round up the major twists, epic fights, new mysteries and anything else that goes down on The CW's Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and Black Lightning and Fox's Gotham. With all of the DC TV shows on winter hiatus, this week THR talks with Black Lightning creator and exec producer Salim Akil ahead of the show's Jan. 16 series premiere. 

Black Lightning isn't here to expand the Arrow-verse. The CW's newest superhero series would rather change the world.

When creator and executive producer Salim Akil first brought the series to life, he didn't set out to introduce yet another comic book drama to cross over with Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. When he decided to bring the inclusive, groundbreaking DC Comics entity Black Lightning to life, he wanted to tell real, grounded stories and to open viewers' minds and hearts to a community with which they may not be familiar. And sure, he wanted to throw some badass superpowers in there, too. But he was always cognizant of how, despite the recent wave of inclusive representation in the comic book genre with Netflix drama Luke Cage, Marvel feature Black Panther and the upcoming animated black Spider-Man, it has taken way too long for African-American viewers to see themselves as superheroes onscreen.

"This is a result of our history. We're what, one generation up out of Jim Crow?" Akil tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think that people in America unfortunately or fortunately are just discovering different aspects of the humanity of African-American people. And so I think with that discovery comes, 'Oh, you could be a superhero, you could be president, or whatever it is that we thought you couldn't be.' Not too long ago, people didn't think that African-American men could be a quarterback in the NFL or coaches in the NBA. We laugh at that now but that's a result of the continuation of the discovery of the humanity of African-Americans."

Black Lightning stars Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, aka the titular Black Lightning, a meta-human with the power to harness electricity. The midseason series begins more than a decade after Jefferson hung up his suit to focus on family and his job as a principal of a charter high school, considered a safe haven for young people in Freeland, a fictional neighborhood overrun by gang violence. No longer a vigilante superhero because of the stress it put on his marriage and family, he’s now considered a real-life hero to his community in the light of day. But he’s reluctantly pulled back into that dangerous life-or-death high-stakes world when his daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), dealing with their own fledgling powers, get caught up with local gang The One Hundred.

While it may live on the same network as the Arrow-verse, Black Lightning will stand alone and not connect with producer Greg Berlanti's onscreen superhero universe. That way, Akil and his wife and producing partner, Mara Brock Akil, can keep Black Lightning more relatable and more accessible. And because of that, it won't be what comic book fans are expecting.

"Fans should understand that it is a journey. It's a marathon, not a sprint," Akil says of Black Lightning. "We're not going to have the villain of the week. We're going to explore our villains and our good guys and we're going to stew in that and really get to know them. I didn't want to do a show where the villains were twirling their mustaches. I wanted you to understand how and why they were the way they were. That will be a big difference from what you may be expecting."

Even the overall tone of the show is more gritty and realistic than one might expect from a superhero series. While the show is set in a fictional city, Akil modeled it after a New Orleans location.

"Right from the beginning you're immersed in a new world you probably have never been immersed in before," Akil says of the community. "I want you to dislike the things you should dislike. I want you to enjoy the things you should enjoy. You should never like to see someone get shot and I didn't want to do a show where violence was just a throwaway for a scene. I wanted to do a show [where] when violence happened, you felt it."

So when Jefferson gets shot, he doesn't just get up from that right away and keep fighting. "From [episode] one to two, you get to feel the emotional repercussions of violence, and that is what I really want people to take away from it," Akil says. "It's not clean."

Those who have read the Black Lightning comic books know that Jefferson's older daughter, Anissa, will eventually take on the mantle of Thunder when her own powers develop. But her coming-of-age story in the comics happens when she's still in school. When Black Lightning premieres, she's already graduated and teaches at her father's school.

"The great thing is what we get to see is her discover her powers, so we get to take that journey with her," Akil says of changing up Anissa's story. "What I wanted to do with her — and Jefferson — is I didn't want powers to be all positive. You know, you get powers and boom, you're great. I wanted to show the consequences of having powers."

When the series premiere begins, Anissa doesn't know she has powers and she doesn't know she comes from a lineage of meta-humans. So when weird things start happening with her inhuman strength, she freaks out.

"She just thinks it's the result of going through something traumatic," Akil says. "She thinks, 'I'm just having panic attacks but now it's fucking with my head. Is this real? Is it not real?' I wanted people to have that journey with her because that's how we all would feel. If you walked out of here now and you had a panic attack and hit the table and it broke, you'd be like, 'What the fuck just happened?' You wouldn't be like, 'Oh, I got these powers!'"

In addition to her growing abilities, Anissa's story will be emotionally powerful to many viewers because she's an out-and-proud lesbian. LGBTQ representation in superhero shows and movies is incredibly rare, so Akil is making sure to give her story its due for comic book fans who desperately need it.

"It's crazy, right?" Akil says of getting to show a lesbian superhero on primetime TV. "I didn't want it to be a 'very special episode.' We just open up on her in bed with her girlfriend and having a discussion not about her sexuality but about what are you going through? How are you feeling? I think it's one of the most sophisticated and loving scenes we've done in this show."

Akil is keeping her story revolutionary by not treating it like it's revolutionary. "I'll be honest with you, we rarely mention it," Akil says. "We just show it. It's not something I'm interested in mentioning, not because I don't want to mention it but because I'm able to show it."

He continues, "My mother, Betty, was an entertainer, she opened up for James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, and I had an uncle who would work as a chef in a restaurant, 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 — I was young so he could have been shorter, but in my mind that's how tall he was. And he would babysit me and come home, take off his cook uniform and get in his dress and cook me food and give me dating advice. I was like 5 so I've been blessed to have a really interesting life and this idea that it's anything other than natural to me is ridiculous. I don't have time for that bullshit."

Deep into filming the first season, Akil already knows how he wants the entire series to unfold. "Back to me saying it's a marathon and not a sprint, what we want to do, we start in the community," Akil says. "That's where most of our news reports start. Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago. You name the city, it starts there. This community is violent, it's got drugs. But I wanted to start there and then start to expand. Where did this drug come from? How did these guns get into the community?"

Just as is true in real life, Akil wants to explore the ramifications of what's happening in urban communities. "These young black men and women aren't manufacturing guns, and they certainly aren't in labs manufacturing drugs," Akil says. "Where are they coming from? That's our goal: We're going to show where they come from. The series could easily be called Black Man's Paranoia, aka Salim's Paranoia, because I feel like a lot of this shit is just dumped into these communities because it can be. Like the opioid addiction, we know that pharmaceutical companies are just dumping that shit into these rural areas because these doctors are just writing scripts."

And if he gets his way, Black Lightning will only run for three seasons. "They're going to hate me for saying that," he says with a laugh. "But three [seasons]. Realistically, for me, I could get out what's inside me in that time."

Black Lightning premieres Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 9 p.m. on The CW.

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