Salim Akil talks Black Lightning, Milestone Comics and the Power of Normalizing the Image of the Black Family

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Salim Akil talks Black Lightning, Milestone Comics and the Power of Normalizing the Image of the Black Family

Last month, I got a chance to visit the set of Black Lightning and meet with the cast and the creator/show runner Salim Akil. Akil is best known for dramas and comedies celebrating the black experience like movies Drylongso (1999) and Jumping the Broom (2011) both of which he directed. Together with his wife, Award Winning Writer/Producer Mara Brock Akil, the duo have created some iconic shows including The Game (2013-2015), Being Mary Jane (2013-2017), and Love Is_ (2018). Last year, the Akils signed a 3 year overall deal with Warner Bros, and Black Lightning, which airs on the CW every Tuesday night, was a result of that partnership.

Now in its 2nd season, Black Lightning has achieved what many thought was pretty risky. Adapting a relatively unknown DC comic book character (to millennials anyway) and turn it into a successful series outside of the Arrowverse. What most don’t know is that Akil is actually a comic book fan and was waiting for the right opportunity to present itself to dust off his director’s chair. I got a chance to ask him a few questions about Season 2 and how he developed the show. 

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Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce (a.k.a. Black Lightning) Image Courtesy of the CW Television

(Interview contains mild spoilers for Season 2 of Black Lightning ep1-3 on the CW)

I’ve asked Cress this question before, but is this a superhero show about a family or is this a family show about people with powers?

Akil:  We always say it’s a family drama. It just so happens that to me superpowers are a metaphor as well. The way they manifest themselves on the show. In my mind, they’re sort of just a metaphor, but I forget sometimes that we have to do powers. Charles Holland (Writer/Producer) who is my right hand and Jan Nash (Producer/Writer/Director) was another one of my right hands are always saying, “Salim, they gotta zap somebody soon.”

This show has been huge for you. What’s it like looking back over the past year?

When we first struck the deal with Warner Brothers, I had kind of been laying low, I hadn’t done any more movies. I was just working within the company and doing Being Mary Jane and stuff because I didn’t like the landscape of television for black men.

So what I told them is that I wanted to reintroduce certain types of black men back into the television community. And actually, I wanted some Milestone Comics but they weren’t available at the time. But they knew that I wanted them, so they had Black Lightning sitting right there [when I met with them].

And so the year has been fantastic because again, I’ve been able to have conversations about some of the things that I see going on in the world, you know, and I do this because I have young black boys and girls in my life and it seemed like it was getting real dangerous for them to just walk the streets and just be who they are. And so to be able to do a show like this, to talk about those things has been great.

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Marvin Jones III as Tobias Whale Image Courtesy of theCW Television
What are some of those conversations that you’ve integrated into this season?

I think one of the things that disturbed me the most that I’ve seen is the snatching of people’s children away. Using the excuse of laws to do something that morally you know, is incorrect, but because you want to make a point, you do it anyway. The thing I always tell people about laws is that just one generation ago there were Jim Crow laws. It didn’t make them right. So that really affected me because I know what it’s like to be taken away from your parents.

But sometimes we get angry at folk, when I say “we” I mean “people” sometimes get angry at folks, but we don’t realize that they may be ignorant of what you’re actually talking about. If I can use the Pierce’s and this genre to talk to people, then people will have conversations. If you have a white friend and you got a black friend and they both watching Black Lightning, they may have a conversation like “What the fuck is the Tuskegee experiment? Why do they keep saying that?” So I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to sort of try to educate each other before we start yelling at each other and I think hopefully that’s what will happen, especially this season.

The way the Black women on the show are depicted is so real and so natural. Right down to how they are styled. How much of that was casting and how much was the writing?

They’re amazing and everything is intentional. You know, it was funny, I was in the hair and makeup trailer today and I said something and somebody called me “anal”. But I have attention to detail. I really do pay attention to details and those are details that I think are important. I have a great team around me and I can look at the broader picture, but my team then allows me to focus in on the details and those are some of the details. I didn’t want them to always be covered in makeup. [In Episode 2] there is a scene where China is getting her hair braided. Those are the details that I think are important for people to see. You’re exposed to different cultures. We’re universal in our theme, but me and Mara, have said about our shows are universal but we bring a cultural specificity to what we do. I think that it entertains people too. I’m sure that somewhere there was a white person like “So, THAT’S how they do it!”.

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Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain as Jefferson’s daughters Anissa and Jennifer Pierce Image Courtesy of theCW Television
Speaking of Jennifer is she getting a suit this season? We see that there’s a room for them now.

Jennifer, more than likely, yes, will get her suit this season. It’s just gotta be right. I want the suit itself to be right. You know, it takes awhile to develop those things. They showed me one and I was like, no, that’s not right.

You have some amazing guest talent this season, have Bill Duke, you have Erika Alexander, you’ve got the Meteor Man himself,  Robert Townsend. Are we going to get even more?

I hope so. We’re always swinging. I thought Erika was a good one because she’s just so subtle, but everybody knows exactly who she is. And Robert Townsend, we’re just bringing it.

We’ve all heard that comic book character Looker is coming to the show, can you tell us anything about her character?

I think having Looker come into our world is really gonna challenge the story. It’s going to be three or four episodes that I think the ones that are not scary, but if you’re watching the show, you gotta see it. It’s going to be really interesting. It’s crazy.

If you could bring any character from the Dakotaverse to Freeland, which one would it be?

Probably Hardware. Most people would think Static.

Yeah, but that would be kind of redundant. Hardware is an interesting choice, because his politics are different.

Yeah. That’d be real interesting.

Tell us about the Green Light babies. Metaphorically, are they those the “consequences” that you’re referring to?

I remember when Hillary Clinton said that we were becoming a generation of “super-predators”, that just hit me. And if you look at the, the difference in the response to crack back then and the response to opioids, you see what we’re were talking about. We were children too when we were [being called] “super predators”. Every time I look on TV I hear about, addiction and healthcare. We didn’t get that treatment. So to your point about the green light babies, not all of them are bad, you know what I mean? But the drug is. So it gives people an excuse to do things that they wouldn’t normally do.

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Christine Adams as Lynn Pierce Image Courtesy of CW Television
Jefferson and Lynn have such an amazing and realistic relationship on the show, even though they’re still separated. Why did you decide to write them that way?

Because a lot of couples in our community are not together and they have children. I wanted to show that you could co-parent in a loving way that you didn’t have to be at each other’s throats, yelling and screaming all the time. But in this regard, what was important was they recognize their daughters. And so everything centers around them.

They don’t always agree. And the first episode you saw they were going at it and I liked that. I liked that they could go at it and then she’d come home and they’re laughing and playing. I think that we often don’t see black bodies doing that in this atmosphere. Often black bodies are in conflict. We don’t necessarily always see them loving each other or touching, smiling at each other.

I really like how you gave Lynn agency this season.

The first season, I felt like Lynn was a little soft that she was always reactionary, you know what I mean? So I didn’t want that to be the case, the season. So towards the end of the season, I put a gun in her hand, you know, a shotgun, and let her blast somebody. So this season you see that she’s getting totally involved.

What has been the response from parents to the show?

What I get is a lot of, “Now my son can sit down and watch a hero that looks like him”. “Now my little girls, I know what I want them to dress up like for Halloween.” Or he blerds out there, now they have cosplay that they can embrace, along with Black Panther. One of our superheroes, she has braids, so I think I get thank you’s and they love the music, you know, everybody loves music

It’s great! Did you get more money for music licenses this season?

Yes. And then my music supervisor Kier he’s been working with me for a long time.

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Damon Gupton as Inspector Bill Henderson Image Courtesy of theCW Television
Fans are so happy that Henderson found out Jefferson’s true identity. What made you decide to finally do it?

I wanted to have fun with all the fans who kept saying, “Why doesn’t he see him? He’s right there!” But ultimately, I wanted to show that Henderson is smart, loving and caring and I don’t think we have the opportunity to do that. He did put it together on his own. I wanted to show a smart caring friend and then also show how men can love each other, particularly black men can love each other. We rarely say it, right? But we got our buddies and if you were my best friend and you found out 20 years later that I was Black Lightning,  you’d be like, “What the fuck? I’ve told you all this shit about my life and what I’m going through and we’ve shared all this shit together.” But I can’t say all of that. So he just looks at him and says, “After all these years, huh man?” It just hurts me when I think about it. So that’s kind of what I wanted to show and their relationship needs to be repaired. We did the same thing with the Gamby, in terms of keeping things from each other in this world.

So when Jefferson loses his job as principal and it goes to Lowry, was that just another example of the kids being controlled?

I think one of the things that we do, and this is part of the conversation, is we make a lot of assumptions about people by the way that they look. I would say a lot of African-Americans have the thought that all white people are doing okay. You know what I mean? “You white, you’re doing alright. You’ve got white privilege.” Even if you’re poor and white. Right? And I think the assumptions that Jefferson makes is that Lowry doesn’t care about the kids. He does. He just has a different way of approaching it. He’s not the touchy-feely teacher. He’s the this-is-what-it’s-going-to-take-to-get-these-kids-to-where-they-need- to-go kind of teacher.

So when you put those two people together, you’re going to have conflict. Lowry was actually less privileged than Jefferson coming up and he busted his ass to get to the top. But these assumptions, and he’s actually going to say to Jefferson, “I never thought you would fall for White supremacy”. “You’re just assuming I had a better start that I’m better than you. I didn’t”. It’s going to be interesting to have that conversation.

Erika Alexander guest stars as Perenna, a telepathic therapist. Image Courtesy of the CW Television
Can you talk about the opening title cards for each episode in season two and the inspiration behind that?

Just a nod to a comic books in general. I felt like the first year we were, I kind of was shying away from the whole comic book aspect of it and this year after going to a comic con, you know, because guys, I wasn’t a big comic book person, you know, I love the milestone comics, and I love Batman, as  a kid. But I had never been to comic con. The first time we went, we had the, the presentation reel. Most of us were there. I don’t think Cress had been to comic con. I hadn’t been to comic con. And so when we came back this year it was like, you know, I think we were in the second largest room.

I was like, Oh shit, this shit is real. And so I said, well, I want to do something to give a little nod [to those fans]. So I decided I wanted to do books, you know, like when you get a comic book one, book two, so the first four episodes, are The Book of Consequences, and then The Rise of the Greenlit Babies. Then I think the second one is Black Jesus Blues. And the third one is going to be called, Master Lowry and the fourth is Translucent Freak.

If the end of last season was about consequences, what is the end of Black Lightning Season 2 going to be about?



Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9pm EST on the CW.
*What do you think of Season 2 so far?

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protectors of wakanda, theblerdgurl, karma horne, dora milaje

Hi! I'm Karama! I'm a Brooklyn blerd, journalist and content creator fueled by coffee and comics. Anime is my orientation. Read More