PASADENA, Calif. – Amid a glut of comics-based superhero shows on TV, CW’s Black Lightning stands out: It’s no origin story, with a newbie discovering new powers.
Instead, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a retired superhero, whose former crime-fighting broke up his marriage. Now a high-school principal and dad in fictional Freeland, he’s lured out of retirement when crime plagues the town.
The series (due Jan. 16, 9 ET/PT), created by the husband-and-wife team of Salim and Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends, The Game), asks “how do we become our own heroes? When do we fight?,” Mara Akil told the Television Critics Association Sunday.
Lightning is not just notable for its largely African-American cast — Marvel’s Luke Cage and the Black Panther film, out next month, also feature black leads — but its focus on character stories over crime-fighting and exploration of contemporary social issues, particularly those affecting the black community.
Pierce is stopped by suspicious cops, and his older daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams), becomes a cornrow-sporting superhero sidekick, Thunder.
The Lightning comics were always socially conscious. “The world that we created is an amalgamation of all three” previous versions of the comics, Williams said. “Even the (original) ’70s version was socially relevant. One of the issues was all about illegal immigration and abusing these immigrants.”
What was the biggest challenge playing Black Lightning?
“Part of it is just learning the fight sequences, that was probably the hardest because it’s the most foreign to me,” Williams told USA TODAY. “I stepped into this so excited about playing a superhero, that was my dream. But the easiest part of it is playing Jefferson, because there are so many similarities between me and Jefferson. He feels so much like me in terms of how he parents and what is important to him and his education and his family.”
Akil says the series hopes to glorify not just its onscreen crime-fighters, but the people they protect. Those fighting to improve their communities “are heroes themselves, just by their own survival.”