For Philly native, a bolt of ‘Black Lightning’

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TV shows based on comic-book superheroes are pretty much omnipresent these days. But one of the latest additions to the fold is garnering attention for featuring the first black lesbian superhero.

“Black Lightning,” based on the adventures of the DC Comics superhero of the same name, debuted on The CW last month. The show focuses on the titular character (Jefferson Pierce, when he’s not in costume), who hasn’t used his powers in nine years and stopped fighting crime as his alter ego at the behest of his wife, who grew weary and afraid of her husband risking his life and limb. Jefferson spent that time raising his daughters and working as a high-school principal in the fictional city of Freeland, where he mentors young adults and tries to keep them on the right path.

But after nine years on the sidelines and a recent estrangement from his wife, Jefferson takes on the Black Lightning mantle again when the increasing violence from the 100 Gang and the reemergence of one of his greatest enemies threaten the lives of his students, his family and his community.

Philadelphia native Nafessa Williams plays Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Anissa, who is openly gay and is coming to realize she has superpowers of her own.

Williams said she was a fan of superhero shows and movies before getting cast in “Black Lightning,” but she had little to no knowledge of the character going in.

“I had never heard of Black Lightning, so I was curious and went back to the early days of the comics,” she said. “‘Black Lightning’ was created in the 1970s and I got caught up. It was this interesting story about this cool superhero and his family.”

Anissa is the overachiever of the family, compared to her rebellious sister, Jennifer. When she isn’t going to college or teaching classes at her father’s school, she’s committed to community activism and keeping her students on the right path. Her relationship with her girlfriend also gets a healthy amount of screen time.

“I really admire her strength and the will in her to fight against injustice in her community,” Williams said about Anissa. “I found it perfect timing considering what is going on in our country.”

One big difference between Anissa (who will eventually take on the name Thunder) and her father is that he’s way more conflicted about the use of his powers and his role in the community than she is. Williams said that, for the time being, Anissa is enjoying her newly found abilities.

One interesting thing about the family dynamic in “Black Lightning” is that both Anissa and Jennifer talk openly with their parents about their sex lives. Anissa talks about relationship issues with her mother and teenaged Jennifer boldly tells her parents when she intends to lose her virginity to her boyfriend. But Anissa, who realizes she now has superpowers, keeps that information from her parents. So far, the adults haven’t told their kids that their father is really Black Lightning.    

“I think that aspect of their relationship is beautiful,” Williams said. “Their sexuality is something that they are sure of, and they speak so confidently and boldly about it. They understand it and their parents have accepted it and supported it. With the superpowers, they’re discovering themselves. They don’t know how to understand it or voice it. They’re on this journey of struggling with the idea of learning to understand exactly what is happening and how these powers work. With my character, she’s moving deep into research trying to figure this thing out. And when she does and when the time is right, it will be something to discuss with her parents. But for right now, she doesn’t even know how to deal with it herself.

“She’s so excited,” Williams added. “If you were to ask her parents, they’d think she’s a little too eager. But she’s ready to use her activism through this and stand up for the community. She takes a Malcolm X approach where Black Lightning takes a Martin Luther King approach. She’s so excited to understand her powers, hit the street and take down some bad guys.”

“Black Lightning” is on the same network as four other DC superhero shows: “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “Legends of Tomorrow.” “Supergirl” exists in a different reality from the other shows but, every once in a while, those characters appear on each other’s shows. “Black Lightning” also exists in another reality separate from the other CW shows but Williams said that while the separation keeps the plotlines on “Black Lightning” more focused, she hopes there will be some kind of crossover.     

“That would be cool if we could find a way to make it work,” she said. “But I think the focus has been on the universe of Freeland. There’s so much to discover and to unfold about this family. It’s a journey of the activism that they are pursuing in their community and fighting for justice. So there’s a lot to focus on in ‘Black Lightning’ with the family and community of Freeland, but I think it would be cool if we could find a way for it all to make sense. But we are in a totally separate universe.”

Williams added that “Black Lightning” is appealing to viewers who might not be into other superhero shows.

“We are seeing a show that is very necessary and very authentic to cities that are very similar to Freeland, and it is done in a very smart way. I think it’s brilliant, the authenticity that the creators have brought to the show and making sure that the stories are told in an inner-city like Freeland. So, touching on the social issues, I do believe that has brought in an audience that maybe another superhero show may [not] have. Also what makes our show different is those superheroes are single and in their 20s and they’re figuring out life. Here, we have a hero who’s a middle-aged man and he has two daughters who are strong, powerful young women along for the ride with him. So I think it’s a conversation within itself. The show sparks people’s curiosity and people want to tune in and see what the first black superhero family is about.”

Williams said the feedback about the show has been very positive.    

“When they turn on the TV, [fans] are seeing themselves,” she said. “I think representation is important and, in particular, I’m playing the first black lesbian superhero, which has never been seen before. I’m honored and proud to give a voice to that. I believe that representation is everything and I believe [we] want to turn on the TV and see ourselves and relate to the character that we are watching. The reaction has been an appreciation for representation and I’m really honored and inspired to be a part of it.”

“Black Lightning” arrives in the middle of a resurgence in superhero shows and movies featuring heroes of color. It’s hitting the airwaves about a year after the critically acclaimed “Luke Cage” debuted on Netflix and a month before “Black Panther” hit the big screen. Both are properties of Marvel, a rival of DC Comics. However, Williams said she has nothing but admiration for shows and movies from other companies. 

“Obviously I am a part of the DC Universe but I give so much support and love over to the cast of ‘Black Panther’ because this is a movement of black superheroes,” she said. “Regardless of what universe you are in, our stories are being told and we’re being represented and I’m honored to be part of that movement. It’s beautiful and cool for the “Luke Cages” and the “Black Panthers” that are out there. I definitely support it.”

“Black Lightning” airs 9 p.m. Tuesdays on The CW. For more information, visit http://www.cwtv.com/shows/black-lightning/.