Cress Williams has a recognizable face. You've seen him in many roles in television and film, whether on Living Single or Hart of Dixie. Now, he's taking part in the live-action television debut of the first principal black superhero for DC Comics, Black Lightning.
According to DC Comics Universe lore, Black Lightning, created by Tony Isabella and Trevor von Eeden, first appears in the comic Black Lightning #1 (1977). Jefferson Pierce is a superhero with the ability to generate and control lightning. Originally, he was a high school principal and Olympic-level athlete who became a vigilante to take down organized crime in Metropolis' Suicide Slum. Eventually, he would become a member of Batman's team of Outsiders for many years, and later retired briefly to become secretary of education underneath president Lex Luthor. Returning to crime-fighting, he has also been a member of the Justice League. Later years, the character’s history was retconned to have his two daughters operate as the superheroes Thunder and Lightning.
In the Black Lightning television series, Pierce, portrayed by Cress Williams, remains a high school principal who is a former Olympic athlete. Gifted with the superhuman power to harness and control electricity, he used those powers to keep his hometown streets safe as the masked vigilante, Black Lightning. However, after too many nights with his life on the line, and seeing the effects of the damage and loss that his alter ego was inflicting on his family, he left his superhero days behind and settled into being a principal and a father. Choosing to help his city without using his superpowers, he watched his daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) grow into strong young women, even though his marriage to their mother, Lynn (Christine Adams), suffered. Almost a decade later, Pierce's crime-fighting days are long behind him...or so he thought. With crime and corruption spreading like wildfire, and those he cares about in the crosshairs of the menacing local gang, The One Hundred, Black Lightning returns — to save not only his family, but also the soul of his community. His daughters, Jennifer (Lightning) and Anissa (Thunder) are not aware of their powers at the beginning of the series.
Photo: The CW
When watching Black Lightning, there is an underlying issue of class that subtly rears its head during multiple points throughout the first few episodes. Williams says that this is intentional, and his reasoning is similar to what Lena Waithe told us about The Chi — black people are not a monolith.
Williams relates Black Lightning’s fictional city of Freeland to Atlanta, where the show is filmed. Just like any other city, Freeland is dealing with “poverty, racial inequality and police brutality,” he said.
“Ninety percent of it (black television) is about ‘the struggle,’” Williams explained to us on set of the show. “On the other side, we’ve seen these are the people who’ve made it,” he said, while referencing television shows like The Cosby Show. “But we don’t see those two worlds intertwine. With our show, you see when you put them together in the same world, you see black is every color of the rainbow. We aren’t just one thing, we aren’t just one people. Every show has to be ‘that’s what it means to be black’ or ‘no, this is what it means to be black.’ We get to see the mix.”
More than that, while confronting “real” issues, the show will be more grounded in reality compared to its DC counterparts. “It’s not like we have to save the world from aliens or whatever, it’s our neighborhood that’s being overrun by these things and we have to save it,” he said. “And it’s different from anything. They’ll be surprised about how many facets of television are in one show.”
It delves into the issue of police brutality, while also showing a heavy light on gun violence in the black community. It is an issue that showrunner Salim Akil has spoken out about.
“The thing is, it’s very important to Salim to show all the facets,” Williams said. “ It’s not just one issue. If it was just one, it would probably be solved. We’ll talk about and deal with all of it. As a community, we’re dealing with multiple things. And we are motivated to touch on all of it.”
Nafessa Williams, who plays Anissa/Thunder, told us that Jefferson is like MLK and her character is like Malcolm X. We see in the series that Jefferson is extremely hesitant to see Anissa march, protest and take on social justice issues.
This will inevitably become more complicated once her powers are realized. Williams says Jefferson isn’t against her getting involved because he’s against the movement, but rather because he’s been through it himself.
“I think its coming from more experience,” he said. “It is a fatherly sense of ‘I want to keep my daughter safe,’ but I think Anissa is more like Jefferson than he would like to believe. She’s more like the Black Lightning before he first put away the suit. He was that social justice guy. But it took a lot from him, and looking at everything he fought for, there are still more challenges to face. He wants to see the same change, but he wants her to use her head more than her heart.”
As the season progresses, we’ll see more and Jennifer and Anissa realizing their powers. But how will Jefferson react to this?
“It’s a mixture of pride, but there is also the fear about all the things that (his powers) have cost him,” he said. “There’s a lot of journey and twists and turns that are going to happen. We progress and get to a different place during that part in the season, so his reaction won’t be that cut and dry.”
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays on The CW.