Black Lightning is the newest superhero show to hit TV and streaming screens and it’s not afraid to rock the boat.
The new Netflix series centres on the DC Comics hero of the same name (played by Cress Williams) and offers a visceral look at the American experience through his eyes as a middle-aged African-American, and that of his daughters, as they deal with growing gang violence and gun crime in their community.
Black Lightning ventures into political and social territory that other superhero series have avoided and that’s down to showrunner Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, who is a producer on the show. The husband and wife team have worked together on such shows as Soul Food, Girlfriends, The Game and Being Mary Jane but now they’ve ventured into comic book territory just as the hunger for more POC-led superhero properties finally gets satiated.
Salim took time out to talk to Yahoo Movies UK about his new TV series, its diversity and what the future for Black Lightning holds.
What do you think of people comparing Black Lightning to Marvel’s Luke Cage?
Well, I think anyone who is doing that, they probably haven’t seen the show. They’re doing that because they are black superheroes, black comic book characters and that is pretty much all they have in common. Their powers are different; Luke Cage is sexy and single and beautifully chocolate, but we have a beautiful man who has a beard, two daughters, an ex-wife and one of his daughters is a lesbian and he’s a principal of a school. If you strip away the fact that they are both African-American comic book characters then there really is no comparison.
You mentioned he has two daughters (Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain), who also have powers, which is rather uncommon in screen adaptations of superhero properties: that being superwomen of colour. Were they always going to be such a major part of the series?
I think you’re aware of the girls, his daughters even in the comics they have powers. I certainly wasn’t going to take that away. Considering that I have children, I have daughters, strong women in my life as well, I wanted to be able to use those characters to sort of examine not only what it is to be a young woman of colour, but also a young woman of colour who happens to be a lesbian and also what it is to be a woman of colour as a teenager. To have them with powers is empowering for young girls and boys to see. I think that those images and those storylines will help people’s understanding, in an entertaining way, of what is going on around them.
Could there be a Thunder and Lightning spin-off?
Not yet, but you know anything is possible.
While some superhero and sci-fi shows use allegory to make political or social comments, Black Lightning is explicit about the experience of black America. Do you think more shows should deal with these kind of issues more bluntly?
As an artist I write, and I do, what I know, and what creatively comes out of me, and I think that other artists should do the same thing. If you find it easier or compelling to have a conversation about space and aliens I’m all for that. We’ve got some really good movies and shows because of that. Even in music with George Clinton, who spent his whole life in space through his funkadelic music. There should be no sort of mandate of how you should approach these things, it should be the creator’s preference.
Some people have complained that the show is anti-white. What do you say to those naysayers?
That’s silly, I don’t have time for that. It’s a silly concept. I think if you watch the show it becomes almost fantastical for someone to make a comment like that. Just because I’m doing something that illuminates the black experience does not make it anti-white, it makes it different from they are used to, but it’s silly to have that opinion.
With some films and TV show centered on ethnic minorities it seems writers have to think about whether a white audience will be interested. Do you have an audience in mind when you’re putting pen to paper?
I’m writing what I know, I come from a place like Freeland. I know guys like Lala. This is not something that I am making up to be cutting edge or edgy this is what I have lived so, as an artist, what I am thinking about when I’m writing is telling a good story. Yes, these are African-Americans but this American experience is something that everyone should be aware of in the country. If anyone sees anything in Black Lightning that seems foreign to them then they haven’t been paying attention. This is a uniquely American experience.
What can you tell us about the future of Black Lightning in terms of its narrative and its longevity as a series?
From a narrative standpoint we want to tell the story of why and how guns and drugs find themselves in black communities; be it a rural community with opioids or a city where people are dealing with gun violence and things of that nature. We want to not just concentrate on gangs, we want to focus on what and how a community is built in this manner. In terms of how many seasons it could go, for me at least, it’s kind of premature but I’d love to see it go on for as long as it is effective.
Black Lightning isn’t part of the Arrowverse (DC’s shared TV universe including shows Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow) but could it mark the beginning of a Lightningverse with more superhero series coming through?
Yeah let’s hope so, we want to entertain. I know this show is topical and it has some political merit to it, but we also want to entertain and make people laugh and get them excited about the fight sequences, and the characters that are coming in, as well as the villains that are coming in. We hope it will be a well-rounded experience so yes, we’d love to see other superheroes come through.
Any superheroes in particular?
Static could be interesting.
And what’s the likelihood of Black Lightning transitioning to the big screen?
No, I don’t think so. I mean you never know, but right now I’m editing and shooting [the series] so that’s what I’m focusing on right now. But it might not be a bad idea.
New episodes of Black Lightning season one air on Netflix UK every Tuesday