Showrunner Salim Akil and Star Cress Williams Talk “Black Lightning”

by Ari Bard
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Salim Akil and Cress Williams have both had long, distinguished careers in Hollywood, but they’ve come together for one superhero, Black Lightning, which helped each fulfill their dreams.

Black Lightning allowed Salim Akil to tell the stories he’d always wanted about justice, cultural conflict, responsibility, and vigilantism, while allowing Cress Williams to achieve his dream of playing a superhero.  They each sat down with and had a lot to say about the show and the character.

When Salim was asked what he saw in Black Lightning, he had this to say:

“It’s interesting because what I saw in it was myself. What I saw in Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce, even the villains, are aspects of myself. I knew that I could talk about these different men with a sense of fairness. So to be able to bring a character to life that was a father, had an ex-wife, two daughters, was a principal, it’s very layered immediately. As a writer and an artist, you’re immediately like, ‘I can say a lot with this.’ That’s really what made me want to jump right into the character and create.”

Cress Williams saw a lot in Black Lightning he wanted to bring to life as well, saying:

“Well, his drive is just simply… He’s from Freeland, he’s a child of Freeland. He lost his father at a very early age, and thankfully, he had Gambi come in and bridge that gap. Gambi has an activist spirit, and so he’s always wanted to make a change. He spent one part of his life making that change in one way, and then he spent a chunk of life making a change in another way, and I think the series is about him discovering that it requires both.

He lives in the community, and he’s in a really nice house in the community, but he lives in the community every day. It’s not like he left. He’s there, so he can’t help but want to make a difference.  I think it’s always a tug and a struggle, because there’s a price to pay for his stepping back into it. As we pick up in the very very beginning he feels like him and Lynn might actually get back together again. They’re so close. So having to put that on hold, the toll on his body, there’s always a price to pay. He makes a better peace with it, if that makes sense.”

Both were able to relate to the character and to his story, but as far as bringing Jefferson Pierce to life, Black Lightning doesn’t have as much source material as some of the other big name superhero shows.  His first run was in the 1970s, and he has also had runs in the 1990s and the early 2000s.  He is currently in a miniseries called Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands.

As far as pulling from the source material goes, Akil had this to say:

“The consistent theme was that Jefferson Pierce was a man of the people. That was a consistent thing. I try not to dig too deep into the comics. I had a couple of conversations with Tony Isabella, which was valuable for me. I think more people should talk to him about the character as well, but after talking to Tony and sort of getting the nod to just do what I wanted to do, that’s what I did.

I didn’t reference. My writers did. They did a whole lot of research, but I sort of wanted to write it from my point of view. That’s what you see. Just writing it from my point of view. I wish I could be one of those writers like, “I did. I read every fucking book that they ever printed. Then they gave me archives of stuff they didn’t print.” But I just sort of took it from my experience.”

Cress Williams, on the other hand, pulled bits and pieces from all three major runs, saying:

It’s a little bit of everything, you know? I read our script first, and we were already in the journey of the show when I started reading the comic books and realized that the world that we created is kind of an amalgamation of all three aspects of it. I love so many different things.

I realized that even in the ‘70s version it was socially relevant. There was one of the issues where it was all about illegal immigration and abusing these immigrants. It was a ‘70s version that could have been today, and so I took that. And there was one other version, I don’t know if it was the ‘90s or the 2000s, where the idea of Tobias [Whale], there was this evil entity over all of it that really spooked me out, and I’m like, “Oh, I think we’re gonna take a little bit of that,” The family aspect, the Gambi aspect is prevalent through all of it, but I’m really happy that we’re an amalgamation of all of them.”

Even though they are both telling the stories they want to tell, playing a superhero is not without its challenges, and when asked about the most difficult part of Black Lightning, Salim Akil answered:

The f***ing special effects and the powers! Because I could literally write this show without powers. He could just be a principal and a dad. I could do that, and I think this show would be good, and I think people would like it. I think people would dig it the same way that they dig it now. The idea of him having powers was like the most difficult part for me. Like, “Oh, OK. He can blow people up. All right.”

Interestingly enough, Williams had a similar answer saying:

Just learning the fight sequences. The fighting is probably the hardest because it’s the most foreign to me, in learning. It’s funny because I stepped into this so excited about playing a superhero. That’s my dream, is to play a superhero. But the easiest part of it is actually playing Jefferson, because there’s so many similarities between me and Jefferson. He feels like me, in how he parents and what is important to him. In education, in his family, and so the harder part is actually just learning the fight sequences, the physicality, because I’m older.

Despite having some challenges, the show premiered strongly last Tuesday night with 2.31 million viewers, showing that the two must be doing something right.  WIlliams and Akil seem to have similar visions for the character, and I am excited to see where they take him.

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