Black Lightning is ready to suit up, and to hear showrunner Salim Akil tell it, it’s about time.
The CW drama stars Cress Williams (Hart of Dixie) as retired superhero Jefferson Pierce — aka Black Lightning — with the actor and DC Comics adaption poised to make history as one of the first major broadcast network TV shows with a black superhero in the lead role. While Netflix has Marvel drama Luke Cage, starring Mike Colter, and The CW has already featured such secondary black superheroes as Arrow‘s Mister Terrific (Echo Kellum), The Flash‘s Kid Flash (Keiynon Lonsdale), Supergirl‘s Guardian (Mehcad Brooks) and Legends of Tomorrow‘s Firestorm (Franz Drameh), Black Lightning represents a major step forward for representation in the comic book TV arena with Williams No. 1 on the call sheet.
“As time progresses, we’ll see more,” Akil tells The Hollywood Reporter of his hopes for additional representation in the genre. “Why did it take so long? You have to put it in context of American history. We’re just about one generation up out of Jim Crow, at a point in time where I couldn’t drink from the same fountain as a white man or a white child.”
“America is catching up with itself,” says Akil, who moved from BET’s The Game to the studio system with a lucrative overall deal with Warner Bros. Television last year. “It’s not only catching up with itself in terms of race, but hopefully it’s catching up in terms of gender and sexuality. You’re seeing a lot of different types of expression because people want different types of expression, they want to understand what’s going on in America from different points of view and I think it’s an exciting time, not only for America in terms of race, but in terms of gender, equality, sexuality. We’re getting to know ourselves and our differences that we have that make us what we are.”
Below, Akil dives deep with THR into what it means to him getting to helm such a culturally significant series, what viewers can expect from the latest CW DC Comics drama and why he’s glad Black Lightning won’t be a part of the larger shared Arrow-verse and more.
Black Lightning was first introduced in the comics in 1977. Why has it taken so long for the superhero world to be more inclusive onscreen when comics have been for decades?
It depends on what you define as inclusive. In ’77, [Black Lightning creator] Tony Isabella was able to express himself in a way that he wanted to, but if you think about it, it was still a white man’s point of view. So I don’t necessarily think that that’s inclusion, although I appreciate Tony and what he did. He created an extraordinary character. But inclusion includes things from the point of view of the people who experience what is being exhibited or the stories that are being told. So I defer back to the same answer: we’re just catching up. It’s a wonderful thing to see Wonder Woman directed by a woman. That did have an affect on the character, the storytelling and the nuances of that film. That’s the same thing my wife Mara Brock Akil and I are doing taking on Black Lightning.
How much will you both be exploring race beyond the superhero genre with this show?
There will be some things that are in the show that are based in reality. The most interesting thing about Jefferson is what he’s doing as a character and what he’s doing as a father and what he’s doing as a man. Being able to illuminate that through the prism of a guy that has these special powers and is trying to figure out a way to use them and maintain and protect the people he loves. Here’s a man with powers, but the thing that he’s most concerned about are his two daughters who eventually get powers and the love of his life, who can’t be with him because he has powers. So is it a gift? Is it a curse? That’s the question I want to explore.
How much pressure do you feel to deliver because of the historical significance of a black superhero in a leading role on broadcast?
I don’t feel any pressure; I just want to tell good stories. I don’t think that the most interesting thing about Jefferson is that he’s African-American. What’s interesting to me about the character is that he’s a superhero who happens to be a father. He has an ex-wife. He’s a principal of a school. He’s a single-dad raising two daughters. Those, along with the fact that he has these powers, are much more interesting than the fact that he’s African-American. Culturally, that’s exciting. But as a father, as an artist, I get to tell a story from the standpoint of a character that I know in totality. I know where he comes from, I understand the things he’s trying to do and I want to express those things. If the only thing that was interesting about Jefferson Pierce is that he is African-American, I don’t think we’d have much of a show. Culturally, that’s exciting. But there are a lot of other exciting things about Jefferson that I look forward to delving into.
What was most important for you to get right with Black Lightning?
The suit. [Laughs.] I don’t want Jefferson to be perfect; I want him to be fallible. I want him to be someone we recognize. Story-wise and character-wise, making sure that we don’t turn him into something that has to answer every ill and woe of the community. He can be flawed. That’s very important to get right.
What has been the biggest challenge for you so far in taking on this show?
It’s one thing to be a comic book fan, but when you have to create a character and put him in a suit and keep the story grounded in reality, the challenge sometimes is making sure he actually uses his powers [laughs]. It’s so funny to me that he has powers. I’m enjoying that idea that when this guy gets himself in a jam or when he’s trying to help his community, there’s an extra thing he has to [fix]. The challenge has been accepting his powers and how magnificent of a character that we have on our hands. When and where does he and should he use his powers, you know?
Considering there are so many established superhero shows and more coming this season, what separates Black Lightning from the pack?
There is no African-American superhero with a family, with an ex-wife, who is a teacher and a proud member of his community. And this show will be grounded more in reality than some of the others.
As it stands right now, Black Lightning is the only CW DC Comics series that is not part of the Arrow-verse. Can you talk about the decision to break free from the world of Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow?
It was a mutually agreed decision. I’m excited about it. Black Lightning has in its own ways disappeared from the DC universe. Those who knew, know. We have an opportunity to reintroduce him to the public. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. I want people to get to know who Jefferson Pierce is, who Black Lightning is. I wanted them to get to know him in a world they recognize. It gives us the opportunity to express ourselves and for me to express myself in a way that’s different and unique. The CW and [producers] Warner Bros. Television and [Greg] Berlanti and Akil Productions came to that conclusion and it’s an exciting one.
What are you hoping that audiences will get out of watching Black Lightning?
I want people to enjoy it, and hopefully I can make them think about a lot of things we experience as human beings everyday. Everybody wants a hero. Right now, we’re in a time where most people wish we had one that could fix some of the ills of the world with a wave of a cape or a superpower. Walking away from Black Lightning, I hope that people understand the world a little bit better by watching this.
But my biggest hope is that, after the premiere, I’m able to see during Halloween little brown boys and little black girls dressed up like Black Lightning and Thunder and Lightning. That would be the most beautiful manifestation of this show. If we could get to that point where these young African-American girls and boys have the choice of being Batman or Jefferson Pierce, at least they will finally have a choice. If I see one kid dressed up like Thunder or Lightning or Black Lightning, I’ll feel like I influenced the culture in a very positive way. That’s the end game for me. If this happens, my mission will be complete.
I’m sure you’ll see that much sooner than Halloween. Comic-Con is this week …
If I see a child dressed like that at Comic-Con, I may cry. I know what it means to be able to see yourself as a hero and have that hero have the same skin tone as you. If the culture could grow up after this and that just be a part of the culture, that would be fantastic.
Black Lightning will premiere in early 2018 on The CW.