Black superhero drama Black Lightning is back, and its sophomore season promises to be even more powerful than the first.
Under the bold direction of executive producer Salim Akil, Black Lightning is primarily about family and the sacrifices one makes to keep them safe. The series follows Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), who had given up his crime-fighting alter ego Black Lightning for the sake of his wife and kids. Nine years later, he’s a high school principal with a tumultuous relationship with his now ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams), and they co-parent two daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain). When a dangerous gang threatens the city of Freeland, he’s forced to resume his vigilantism, while protecting his secret identity from a government agency that’s hot on his trail and keeping his daughters safe, who might just be superheroes too.
Based on the DC Comics character of the same name, this show’s explosive first season proved that it was much more than a stereotypical showcase of good versus evil. The show includes nuanced narratives about drug addiction, police brutality, government conspiracies and unsanctioned experimentation on Black bodies.
Ahead of the season premiere, Shadow and Act traveled to Decatur, Georgia, where Black Lightning is filmed, to speak with Akil, tour the set, and get an inside scoop into the upcoming season.
“Tonally it’s a little bit more fast paced,” Akil said of the first of four chapters of episodes this season, called “The Book of Consequences.”
“I think that’ll surprise people,” he continued, considering the slow burn of the first season. He also told Shadow and Act that audiences should expect the daughters to start showing their powers more.
“To me, their powers are metaphorical, anyway,” Akil said. “Although they manifest themselves in the show, in my mind, they’re just metaphorical. I sometimes forget that we have to do powers. Charles Holland, who is my right hand, and Jan Nash, who is another one of my right hands — they always say, ‘Salim, they’ve got to zap somebody. They’ve got to use their powers!'”
But the heart of the show will stay the same.
“We do continue the family aspect of the show, but I think now that everybody’s discovering who they are, the conflicts are elevated,” he said. “We always say it’s a family drama first — they just happen to have powers.”
In season one, The Game director was careful to integrate real-life themes into the show, including the controversy over the removal of Confederate symbols and the #BlackLiveMatter movement. Now, two years deep into this current presidential administration, Akil sees no reason to tone down his stance.
“I think one of the things that disturbs me the most is the snatching of people’s children away from them, and using the excuse of the laws to do something that morally, you know is incorrect,” Akil stated. “Just one generation ago, there were Jim Crow laws. That didn’t make them right. You can’t always use the laws to have an excuse or condone what you’re doing. That really affected me, because I know what it’s like to be taken away from your parent for whatever reason.”
By using a superhero series as a backdrop, Akil hopes to continue sparking uncomfortable conversations about race and racism, white privilege and everything else society tries seems to squirm away from.
“If you have a white friend and you have a Black friend, and they’re both watching Black Lightning, they may have a conversation about it,” he explained. “Someone may ask, ‘What the fuck is that Tuskegee experiment? Why do they keep saying that?'”
He’s hoping the show will provide teachable moments on top of the entertainment. “We sometimes get angry at folk, but we don’t realize that they may be ignorant to what you’re experiencing or talking about. I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to educate each other before we start yelling at each other. I think, hopefully, that’s what will happen, especially this season. There’s some shit coming down the road that even I’m scared of!”
Though Jefferson stands at the center of this narrative as the title character, the women of Black Lightning are the backbone of the series. From the beginning, Akil ensured that the show would elevate Black women and make protecting Black women and girls its primary motivation.
“Everything is intentional,” he laughed. “I have a great team around me. I didn’t want the girls to always to be covered in makeup. There are moments, but I’d like everybody to look natural. It was a choice to have their mother’s hair short. You see braids. I think it’s episode one where China’s getting her hair braided. Those are the details that I think are important for people to see. You expose folks to different cultures. We’re universal in our things. Me and Mara (Brock Akil) have both said that we’re universal in our things, but we bring a cultural specificness to what we do.”
Black bodies are still seen as walking weapons in society. Akil and his writer’s room took the time to unpack this. The Jumping the Broom director explained that he’s always been haunted by Hillary Clinton calling Black youth “super predators” in the ’90s.
“It just hit me like, ‘What the f**k? Geez! We can’t catch a break,'” he remembered. “If you look at the difference in response to (the crack epidemic of the ’80s) and the response to opioids (today), you see what we were talking about back then. We were children, too. We were people, too. Every time I look on TV, I hear about addiction and healthcare. We didn’t get that treatment.”
This heavy focus on social justice issues makes Black Lightning, the show where Akil feels he’s most been able to show his specific voice.
“I think this show is the closest thing to you getting what’s going on in my mind,” Akil reflected. “With Being Mary Jane, you saw more of my voice in the news area — the subjects that we were talking about. But it’s mainly Mara (Brock Akil’s voice shaping the show). I think with this one; you get to see what’s on my mind.”
And what’s on his mind is what it’s like being Black in America.
“I know that maybe sometimes people get tired of me saying, ‘Black this, Black that.’ I do it for a reason. I do it because I want it to become a normal part of America,” Akil said. “We are Black! It shouldn’t shock people that we’re Black. The things we talk about and the things that are on our minds are the same things that are on everybody’s mind, but there are some cultural specifics that we need to talk about. You shouldn’t say ‘Black’ and not think America or American. I’m not giving up what my ancestors built. I’m not giving it up. I’m not moving to Africa. I don’t know nothing about Africa. I’ve been there and it’s beautiful, but it’s nothing like home.”
Along with his hard-hitting topics, Akil is ready for Black Lightning’s audience to see what other treats he has in store for them. Erika Alexander is joining the series in a key role, giving Living Single fans a reunion of sorts between Alexander’s Maxine Shaw and Williams’ Scooter. Also, Jennifer might finally be embracing her powers.
This is just the beginning of some significant changes on the horizon for the Pierce family. As Akil said slyly while we wrapped for the day, “We’re always expanding!”
Source: YouTube | The CW Television Network
The second season of Black Lightning premieres October 9 on The CW.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or tweet her @wordwitharamide