Black Lightning is the latest addition to the roster of DC Comics superhero shows on The CW.
This new entry will air on Tuesdays at 9PM following The Flash; unlike the other series on The CW lineup, this series has an older lead actor: Cress Williams as retired superhero Jefferson Pierce. The show is true to the original creation by Tony Isabella with artist Trevor von Eeden over 40 years ago, in that Pierce is a high school principal who cares for and watches over his community just as much while in costume as he does without. Black Lightning is also noteworthy in that the series has a predominantly African-American cast and it succeeds in bringing real-life drama and concerns into a world which also happens to have a superhero.
In anticipation of the launch of the new series, KSiteTV’s Craig Byrne spoke with Executive Producer Salim Akil — the writer and director of the series pilot who, with his wife Mara Brock Akil, have been the driving forces behind series including The Game, Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane. Be warned, some spoilers for the series may be discussed within.
KSITETV’s CRAIG BYRNE: Black Lightning is a superhero show, but it is also a family drama. Is that something that you wanted to get across?
You know the comic, so you know that Jefferson was a family man and a community man, so I didn’t want to lose that aspect. I didn’t want to make him 20 and put him in a tight suit with a bulge. I definitely wanted to keep the family aspect of him.
When the pilot was first written, the show did take place in Los Angeles. Can you talk about the decision to make it the fictional Freeland which you had mentioned as being based on Richmond?
It was in Los Angeles because I wanted to shoot in Los Angeles, and if I couldn’t shoot in Los Angeles, I didn’t want to try to create Los Angeles anywhere else. So that’s really — it’s just the practical nature of it. I just did not want to say we were in Watts and not be in Watts, so I created Freeland, and that made it a little bit easier to tell these stories in a way that I could shoot it and make it feel real.
Can you talk about how locations like the Seahorse Motel really added to the show’s atmosphere?
It’s just real, right? You see these places where people who do not have a lot of resources have to live. It’s interesting, when we went there to scout it, there was one room… and you saw it in the pilot what the room looked like… can you imagine two families living in one of those rooms? I just felt like it it was important to be as real as possible in the way that we were approaching it. It’s the same way with… I hate the term, and I’m trying to remember how to put it. I hate it so much… but “teenage prostitutes.” There are no teenage prostitutes. There’s no such thing. There are young girls who have been forced to do things that other folk want them to do, to turn tricks, and so, I wanted to show people what that looks like, and the Seahorse Motel is sort of what that looks like.
How important is it that this series establishes its own identity outside of the Arrowverse?
It was important because if you take a look of the superhero shows…. I asked myself “if there was a Superman, why has Superman never tried to clean up Watts or Chicago? Why do superheroes never seem to answer the call of regular people?” There’s so much violence in the world, just on a very grounded and base level of every day folk. In real America, the Opioid addiction is running rampant. Where are the superheroes? And so to me, it was important to put the superhero in a place where we all recognized, and fighting folk that we recognize, so that we could talk about it but also, we didn’t want violence to be arbitrary and distant. I wanted it to be close and in your face, so that when [spoiler for Episode 2], you feel it. Like “oh, shit!” It’s real.
Can you talk about how Garfield High is a safe place, and how it feels when danger enters?
No one’s safe. Jefferson thought “oh! The school. I’m good at it.” And his daughter says “did you really think that it wasn’t going to affect us at some point?” Because it does. You think “oh, that’s not going to happen.” And then all of a sudden, it’s right there on your doorstep.
We start to see Anissa’s powers very early on.
I wanted to have fun and tease it [early]. It’s still a situation where we want to have fun, and be a superhero show. We want [the audience] to be like “what’s next? What’s going to happen in Episode 2?”
It is fun to see that Jefferson is still very much in love with Lynn.
He is. She’s the love of his life. What I wanted to do was — because there are so many broken homes around the country, I wanted to show that you can parent and be parents, and love each other, and still be broken up, but ultimately, I wanted to show that can co-parent in a very respectable and honorable way, and it doesn’t have to be contentious. Here’s a couple that does it. Lynn and Jefferson manage to co-parent in an honorable way.
Might it become more contentious when Jennifer and Anissa start to put on costumes?
Of course. You know that!
Is Jefferson disappointed that his friend Henderson has not done more for the community, as part of the police?
No, because I think Jefferson understands the restraints that are on the police. The one thing that I wanted to show was that there are a lot of good, honest cops out there who are trying to do good work, and that’s what Henderson represents. In the conversation about police brutality and all of that, I didn’t want to abuse the idea that there are good cops out there. It wasn’t to try and appease anyone; it was because I know a couple of really good cops, and I wanted to represent them in a way that they truly are, and that they really do want to help their community.
Will we ever see a full flashback episode to the first time Jefferson Pierce was Black Lightning, meeting with Gambi for the first time?
You’ll see something like that.