With the first season of Black Lightning in the books and a second season order Google-official, I can say with complete confidence: if you aren’t already watching Black Lightning, you should be. If dashikis and head wraps were essential for the premiere of Black Panther, I’m slipping on my favorite pair of kicks and hoodie in my living room for Black Lightning because this is definitely for the culture.
The show, which premiered earlier this winter, follows Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal and retired superhero who is pulled back into that superhero life after a deadly gang, the 100, terrorizes his community. As season one progresses, he is joined by his daughters, Anissa and Jennifer, who learn they also have superpowers. The show features a stellar cast of characters who deliver in a way that makes this extraordinary world seem totally believable. The show is intelligent and fearless. It tackles issues from community violence to sex trafficking to widespread government corruption. It portrays superheroes and villains as complex individuals that could be your friend, neighbor, or baby cousin. It also delivers what is sure to be one of the greatest comic villains of all-time, Tobias Whale.
BGN sat down with Black Lightning showrunner and overall dope human being, Salim Akil, to chat about how the project got started, where he sees it going, and why the black superhero is the suddenly the most popular kid in school.
FAYE: First things first, I heard you were a big comic fan growing up. Were you a DC or Marvel kid?
SALIM: You know, it’s funny because I guess that conversation was going on when I was younger but I wasn’t privy to it. I just loved picking up a comic book. In my day, you didn’t have to go to a comic store to get comics, you could pick them up… wherever you went shopping with your parents or grandparents. I was always fascinated with everything that was going on in them. I have to say, I was always a lover of Batman… That’s always been one of my favorite characters [but] I had sort of put the comics down because I wasn’t seeing comics that spoke to me. They were other-worldly but it seemed like no matter what world you were in, there were no black folks so I started reading Octavia Butler. When Milestone came along, it really revved up my interest again. I tore through those characters and books. Fast forward some years later, to get the opportunity to do Black Lightning…. I was really, really excited about the opportunity.
FAYE: Black Lightning was created by comic legend, Tony Isabella, who is still writing Black Lightning. He has been very vocal about how happy he is with your adaptation. While the show definitely departs from the comic in some aspects, it remains true to his vision. Can we expect to continue to have a similar experience to the comic or are you open to different journeys?
SALIM: We’re definitely going to continue what we’ve done. We always give a nod to the comic. I thought it was very important for me to course out my own journey with Jefferson and Black Lightning. I had so many things I wanted to say. Tony visited me in Los Angeles and we sat down and talked. He was really excited about what I had to say with Black Lightning and he gave me his blessing. I was happy that he liked it.
FAYE: One of the things I loved about this season was how much there was to think about after each episode. There was this almost sinister subplot/invisible narrative addressing black folks as commodities. I see parallels to Get Out and even Black Panther in tackling this idea of widespread conspiracies targeting the black community. Why do you think these narratives are resonating with audiences? Particularly black audiences?
SALIM: I think because we’ve heard about these things, right? We’ve heard whispers about the Tuskegee Experiments, the Flint water crisis, and even chemtrails (as Prince talked about all the time). Anissa said it in the show: we are always being accused of being paranoid but we’re only paranoid until the truth comes out. I think the reason that it’s resonating with people is because it’s validation that you’re not crazy. You’re not the only one thinking this.
There’s a reason why the majority of black and brown men are in jail. Millions of young black and brown men are missing in prison, and they are commodities. Prisons are an investment. People invest in these prisons, and they have to make money. So that means somebody has got to occupy those cells. Read The New Jim Crow. You get an idea of how the system works for young black and brown men and women. To answer your question… you can have a conversation with comics and art that you can’t really have sometimes at a dinner table with different cultures. I think that people are interested. So if you can entertain and discuss, it helps swallow that pill a little bit easier. It also helps people to feel like their seen. I think that’s probably why people are really taking to these storylines.
FAYE: Music plays a really important role in the show. How important is musical selection to you? How involved are you with that?
SALIM: Very involved. I typically pick the songs. If I can’t use them, I have a great musical supervisor who will give me alternatives. He does a really fabulous job because we worked together since I did Jumping the Broom. He knows my taste, and we have a second-hand language. We talked about it very early on, how I wanted to approach music in the show. We managed to continue the conversation on many different levels with the music, the writing, and the visuals. I want it to be a total experience.
FAYE: It definitely is. I’m sure people have gushed about Cress Williams in this role. He has been around awhile. I remember him as Khadijah’s boyfriend in Living Single. There is a real tenderness to Cress Williams’ portrayal of Jefferson Pierce. He loves his family and community. He loves his ex-wife. Even his rage is relatable. There have been some hints about a dark side, particularly with respect to “the addiction” that drove him and Lynn apart. Is that something we can expect Season 2 to explore?
SALIM: Yeah, I think now that we’ve introduced everybody and you’ve got to know them — good guys and bad guys. Now, we will have a shorthand with the audience, and we can do things that will go deeper into who they are as people — definitely Jefferson and Black Lightning. I see them as two different people. They are going to have to come to terms with who they are and can they ever just be one. Jefferson is very conservative in the way he approaches everything. He’s woke but he’s very conservative in his approach, even his speech. You notice when he is Black Lightning, he gets a little bit looser and he’s having a little bit more fun.
FAYE: I wanted to ask you about that. He’s sort of code-switching a little bit. Jefferson Pierce is more likely to conjugate verbs and what not. What significance does that hold for you in telling this story?
SALIM: Well, that’s what you have to do as a woman. As a black woman. I’m sure your husband, depending on what business he’s in. It’s funny, I was on the phone the other day putting together my son’s birthday. I was talking (on the phone) to one of the mothers who I had never met but her son was coming over. When I hung up, my son said, “Dad, I’ve never heard you talk like that before.” I said, “Well, look, I can’t get on the phone and talk like I would talk to your grandfather. That woman would be like, ‘my son’s not going over there!’” The funny thing about it is, just like Jefferson, we do it effortlessly. It’s so much a part of who we are.
I remember growing up in Richmond and never having to really do that until I moved to Los Angeles. I was like, oh, okay, I have to learn how to talk to these people because the language I’m using, they’re looking at me like I’m never going to get a job! As African American men and women, Latino men and women, we hustle, man. We learn how to do things that most people don’t have to do. But now, look at time, time is moving very rapidly. Whereas before, people were approaching life as though we were minorities, we’re starting to realize culturally and in actual numbers, we are becoming the majority. I’ve seen white people code switch on me, try to get into my culture. It’s not derogatory or offensive. They are trying to code switch and get involved in the culture. I think it’s great.
FAYE: The season felt so complete and well-developed. It was well paced and we got to know everyone. Personally, I am obsessed with Jennifer’s journey. China Anne McClain (who plays Jennifer) is just everything. I also love the complexity of Tobias Whale (played by Krondon). I’m so glad he wasn’t killed! Who or what are you most excited about exploring next season?
SALIM: This is going to sound like a cop-out but it’s really true: I’m just excited that one, we got a second season and that we’ll be able to explore all kinds of different stories. We’ve introduced everybody. Now we’ll be able to tell stories with even more depth because we don’t have to explain who people are. We try to tell stories that people can identify with and they see and they understand. In Episode 11, Jefferson went to jail. He was arrested and got drugs planted on him. That happens every day. Just the other day, two young brothers sitting in a Starbucks… you’re not allowed to do that, I guess. They were arrested. I think people, not just Black folk, but all people are getting tired of hearing these stories. It doesn’t mean they are going to go away but it does mean that when these things happen, I think now (hopefully) you get a little bit of the benefit of the doubt.
FAYE: You mentioned the brothers at Starbucks. When people watch a show like this, you feel so empowered but then you leave and you think, there is no Black Lightning. There is no one that is going to come and rescue a community. Where do you think the hope lies in narratives like these in today’s society?
SALIM: Well, I tried to say it in Jennifer’s last voiceover in the finale. The hope is with the people. We can have a show like Black Lightning, and I’m happy to be part of it and bring it to life. At the end of the (finale), I wanted to talk directly to the audience. I wanted to say, I know you are watching the show. I know they call us superheroes but I want you to know the real heroes are you — the people that get up every day, get their children up, feed them, get them to school, and get through life without hurting themselves or hurting anyone else. Those are heroes. That’s where the hope lies.
If we aren’t going to help each other, we can allow each other to get through our days without the microaggressions and the macroaggressions that we worry about every day. This is everybody on a very basic level: everybody just wants to get up and have the world leave them to f#ck alone if it’s not going to benefit them. I think the hope is in the people. It always has been.