How 'Black Lightning' Became a Superhero Show With a Social Conscience (Exclusive)

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Showrunner and executive producer Salim Akil talks to ET about how he's using a masked vigilante to show what being black in America means.

Black Lightning's back.

The CW launches its latest DC Comics offering in the comic book genre on Tuesday, but the story of the man behind the suit, Jefferson Pierce (Hart of Dixie's Cress Williams), won't follow the typical superhero path. Set in the fictional town of Freeland, Black Lightning explores a man's struggles to keep his family and his community safe from increased crime and corruption due to the rise of the powerful One Hundred gang. Retired for the past nine years from his crime-fighting persona, Jefferson is forced to resurrect Black Lightning once again when a traumatic event hits too close to home.

"Black folk have been the other in shows and movies and in life for quite a long time. Not from our perspective, we’re not 'the other,' but from other people’s perspective we have been 'the other,'" executive producer and showrunner Salim Akil tells ET of why he felt added significance in featuring a black hero as the centerpiece of his own story, much like Netflix's Luke Cage did. "Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce, Thunder and Lightning deserve their own show because they are not 'the other.' They are legitimate superheroes in their own right and so they deserve the full breadth of exploration. That’s what makes them worthy and that’s why they deserve it. They are not 'the other.' They are 'the the.'"

In the opening scene of the series premiere, Jefferson is pulled over by a cop and handcuffed while his two teenage daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), lay witness to the traumatic event, all over baseless information, a moment Akil -- who grew up in Oakland, California -- has personally experienced several times in his life. Though the introduction forces you to lean in, the rawness of the scene is exactly what Black Lightning attempts to bring to the table on a weekly basis.

Ahead of the series debut, Akil gets candid with ET about why Black Lightning is more than just a vigilante with powers, whether his show has a different mission than The CW's other DC properties and why it's paramount to him that viewers experience "what's really happening" in the world.

ET: You really set the table early in the opening scene of Black Lightning, where Jefferson Pierce gets pulled over by the police and handcuffed, that this isn’t going to be the typical superhero TV show. What was important for you to make clear in that initial introduction to the series?

Salim Akil: Although that scene does set a tone, I agree with you, I don’t think the intention was to set a tone. The intention was to tell a story about a man and show what his life is like and what he has to deal with in his life, be it his daughters, his ex-wife or his school. This is just a moment in his life. A lot of African Americans, especially men, deal with this as a part of life. I’ve been pulled over by the police in my life and I think I’ve only gotten a ticket once. It’s just a part of everyday life and it doesn’t matter if you’re in the car with your children or by yourself. I wanted to show a slice of life and what life in this particularly neighborhood was like.

We haven’t had many opportunities to see a superhero story on TV centered on a man of a certain age. Here, Jefferson is older, he has teenage daughters, he was married and he has a job running the high school. What has that allowed you to explore as a storyteller that you wouldn’t have been able to do had Jefferson been in his 20s?

It allows for more jeopardy. He’s a father. He’s an ex-husband. He’s an educator and he cares about his students, his family and his community. When you’re young, taking a risk doesn’t necessarily feel like a risk because you’re young. You have that time ability to [be invincible]: “I can jump out of a plane. I can jump off a cliff.” But once you get a man of a certain age and you’ve lived more days than you’re gonna live, then you value those days differently -- not necessarily more -- than a younger person. When you have invested in life with children and a wife and you built a school, there’s a lot more to lose other than just your life. As a superhero, as a hero, some call him a vigilante, there’s a lot more for Jefferson to lose as Black Lightning. It’s allowed me to tell stories about that -- about the idea of: Do I want to come back? I know the potential losses. You see that he’s struggling with coming back until he feels like he can’t help but come back. The guilt he feels behind having not been Black Lightning for all these years is palpable throughout the series. Those are the stories that it’s allowed me to explore, the idea that having powers isn’t all great. It’s not a utopia and it has consequences. I haven’t heard it a lot, but throughout the series, you hear people telling him, “You’re not invincible. You can be killed,” and that has consequences.

There’s a weight to the stakes set in the early episodes of Black Lightning that are literally life and death. We see bad people die and even the innocent perish. Why was that important for you to depict on the show and is there a line that you won’t cross?

It was important because it’s what’s really happening. I grew up around violence most of my life. I worked in a mortuary for some time. I know what dead bodies look like. I know what they feel like. I know what it’s like to hold someone when they take their last breath. There’s no way that I personally could do a show where people are dying -- at least I have to attempt to make you feel it. Whether I succeed is on me, at least I have to make the attempt to make sure that I’m not presenting violence in a way that people can just walk past it without noticing it. We still have to entertain, don’t get me wrong. I want to entertain. I want people to laugh. I want people to cry. I want it to be the feel-good series of the year. I want all of that, but I have to do it in a way that resonates with me artistically with my own expression, and so, that’s why it is the way it is.

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What did you want to get right in your approach to bringing Anissa to the screen, who, in the comics is gay and has a girlfriend?

I didn’t want to shy away from that just because we were going to do a television show. What I didn’t want to do was the big reveal story, the big coming-out story. I don’t have an interest in that because I feel like, and I hope, that we’re beyond that. I wanted to show that [the relationship] was loving and real and complicated; as relationships go, especially as Anissa’s trying to figure out what’s going on with her. I wanted to present it in a way the way that I lived it, the way that I see it. People are really hung up on sexuality and I’m not, and I don’t understand why it’s so strange that somebody wants to love who they want to love. It’s ridiculous to me that people would even have an interest in anybody’s choice about who they want to spend the rest of their life with or spend a few years with or be romantic with.

The first image of Anissa as her superhero alter ego, Thunder, was recently released. What can you tease about the context in which she gets introduced to her powers?

We’ll explore that for both of the girls: why, how and when. Why now? Anissa’s powers are manifesting themselves out of trauma.

Speaking to Jefferson's relationship with his ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), there is a lot of history to mine there and we get the backstory as to why they separated through their differing views on Black Lightning. What are you most interested in exploring when it comes to the former couple?

I wish with my own two older children that I had been as wise and cool as Jefferson and Lynn are as far as co-parenting. It’s me probably, in this regard, trying to set a blueprint maybe for people who are watching who may have children, but who may not be together. I wanted to show that, in a perfect world, this is how we would co-parent. We would all hang out. We would cook dinner together. We would always love each other and disagree in a manner that didn’t mean that we have to be angry at each other in a way that separates. It’s just a bit of blueprinting and a bit of how I wish it could have been in my own life.

Why did you make the decision to keep the Black Lightning universe separate from the DC-verse that’s been established on The CW?

For now, I’m set on that. For me, it would have to be something extremely special and based in our reality and something I would do with those characters to bring them into our world. But right now, I don’t see really see that.

Tonally and creatively, do you view Black Lightning as having a different mission or goal than The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl or DC's Legends of Tomorrow?

There is no either or. I dig The Flash, man, I really do, and it’s very progressive if you really look at it. I don’t think it gets any credit for being progressive. You got a white guy adopted by a black family, highly attracted to a black woman, you got a black Flash in Kid Flash. That’s pretty f**king progressive. I noticed it right away. Talking to [executive producer] Greg [Berlanti], it was a progression and maybe, God willing, somebody will take another character and do something else with it that people can appreciate. We all love stories of heroes and villains because in our own lives, we have heroes and villains. We have people that we respect and care for and love and we look to for inspiration, and then whether it’s our boss or our lover or our neighbor, we have people who are villains in our life, and we wish someone could take care of them, so these stories to me are timeless. It’s about how you approach them and how you execute them.

Do you feel like superhero dramas and comic book shows don’t get their due when it comes to the social commentary they sometimes make under the guise of caped crusaders?

I’m an old dude, so when I say this, I want to be clear that I think that’s going to change because hopefully younger people will be able to put these shows in a context that helps it relate to everyday people. That’s what I wanted to do with Black Lightning. I didn’t want to be so fantastical that you couldn’t relate to the everydayness of the world. I want people -- black folk, white folk, Hispanics, Asians, Lithuanians, Germans, Arabs -- I want everybody to be able to see themselves in this show because all we’re talking about is a family and a man who’s concerned about his family and his community. Most women and men, regardless of who they are, have that concern. That’s why I pulled this down into the world that it’s in because I wanted people to see that you could do a show about a man in a suit, about a woman in a suit, but it could be connected to the people in a real way.

What do you hope viewers will get out of the first season?

I want them to be entertained, man. I want them to be engaged in the storylines. I want them to enjoy the music. I remember sitting down in front of the TV and you knew that your neighbor was watching the same sh*t you were watching; when I grew up, you knew that your neighbor was watching Kung Fu [a 1970s martial arts action drama starring David Carradine]. Now, we have so many outlets in terms of what we can watch and when we can watch it, but back then, people were sitting down at the same time watching the same stuff. I want to bring that feeling back again. I’m hoping that there will be a gathering of people who will talk about it the next day and talk about the fun they had and talk about the issues that we addressed. I want people to be like, “Oh sh*t, I didn’t know Anissa was a lesbian?” I want them to say that in the context of “They didn’t treat it like a big deal.” I want people to talk, I want people to have a conversation and have fun with it.

Black Lightning premieres Tuesday, Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.