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‘Black Lightning’ Boss on Telling a Tale of ‘African-American Paranoia’

The CW’s latest superhero team-up with Warner Bros. Television and DC Comics is “Black Lightning,” helmed by Salim Akil. But although his show shares its origins in comics with the others already established on the network slate, he isn’t interested in having his show exist in a shared universe at this time.

“I kind of feel like the broader audience doesn’t really know who Black Lightning is. They know the name now, but I wanted them to really get to know Jefferson and his family first,” Akil tells Variety, although he recognizes that “down the line” the network might want “Black Lightning” to be a part of their annual crossover events.

Instead, Akil is focusing on introducing Jefferson (Cress Williams), his powers, and his family to a new audience. Calling Jefferson a “community-based superhero,” Akil points out that the show is steeped in his experiences growing up in Richland, Calif. and is deeply personal to him and his writers room — which is made up of predominantly African-American staffers. “We have people who have either lived this life or know someone who has,” he says, adding that it’s a story about him and people he knows.

“I want to show them respect,” he continues. “I try to maintain the balance of this has got to entertain and it’s got to be fun and he’s got to use his powers, but, ultimately, it’s a very personal, artistic expression for me.”

Ahead of the series premiere, Akil spoke with Variety about using history to inspire stories on the show, the rules for how his characters got their powers, and the importance of the family unit on the show.

Jefferson has had his powers for years, but in a way there is still an origin story aspect to “Black Lightning” in his daughter’s powers beginning to emerge. Why do her powers show up now at this time in her life?

When we talked about each character getting their powers, we wanted to do it in a way that felt personal. So, she’s been trying her damndest to be involved in the community and really work with the community, and I think the kidnapping really brought something out of her emotionally. She starts having these panic attacks, and that’s how it comes out — [after] being involved in something that’s really traumatic. It’s a show about superheroes, but I try to steep everything, in my mind, to reality, and this was her reaction to a traumatic event. These panic attacks come and unleash something in her.

Are the rules the same for everyone, and if a similar situation caused Jefferson to obtain his powers, will the show flash back to see the when and how of the event?

It is how he first exhibited his powers as a child, and we will see that. I sort of did it in reverse. Usually you do the origin story at the beginning, but we’re actually going to see all of that probably in the finale. Each character manifests their powers out of needing them in that moment to save themselves — and when I say “save themselves,” it’s not saving themselves in the physical aspect, it’s saving themselves emotionally.

Lynn (Christine Adams) is the only one in the family who knows Jefferson is Black Lightning. She asked him to stop fighting crime, and he did, and yet they still separated. Why did you want to separate them?

That’s real. What do they say, like 50% of marriages end? I wanted to see that you can split up, but you can still co-parent and you can still raise your children in a healthy way. This woman loves him, and he loves her — there’s no doubt — and they want to be together. After you’ve gone through years of seeing bones broken, bloody faces, him out fighting crime every night, it’s going to take some years before you just jump back in. As much as you may want to trust, any little hint of that life again will make you pull back.

Why not give Jefferson a helmet to protect him from additional damage and also to keep his loved ones from recognizing him?

It’s an interesting line every time I read one of the scripts. I have a crew crew of writers, but I touch every script. And there was a scene recently in a script where Thunder and Black Lightning had on their suits, but they were in the house, and I was like, “Nah.” It varies from story to story and script to script, but I try to have rules I stick to — even if they’re still being set because the show is new.There’s a moment in the first episode where he’s literally right in front of his daughter, and he has the thing over the eyes, and we’re going to change his voice, but there’s not a lot more we can do, and you kind of have to just buy into it a little bit. I had a lot of iterations of his costume, and at one point I had covered his face and his eyes, but what was more important to me was the emotion, and you need to see that. You need to see his eyes when his daughters have a gun pointed at them.

How important is it to you to balance the more grounded traumatic events with those fantastical powers so the characters still feel like they could exist in our real world?

Will most of the conflict come from the gangs then, or will more traditional comic-book style villains — people with powers — be an issue for Jefferson in Season 1?
You really don’t meet characters that have powers yet. What I wanted to do was have an arc about black male paranoia and African-American paranoia. So we start in the black community, fighting the gangs. And then this drug is introduced, and everyone’s questioning where the drug comes from, and we start to follow the trail of where it comes from, and it expands. So if you think about the Tuskegee experiment, it’s sort of like that: we expand out and see oh, this stuff isn’t coming from the low-level gang members. That’s how the world expands.

That doesn’t seem paranoid, given that it was true.

Right, the Tuskegee experiment really happened, but if we were to talk about chemtrails, people would say, “Oh you’re paranoid!” But we’re only paranoid until somebody blows the whistle.

What kind of responsibility do you feel to tell such “ripped from real life” stories as police brutality and gang violence, given your personal experiences and the platform you now have?

I feel like I have a responsibility to true to who I am as an artist, first and foremost. It’s like Jefferson: he has these powers, and he’s reluctant to use them because he doesn’t want to jeopardize what he has in his family. I have this power — I’m one of the few African-American male showrunners in the landscape right now — and I have to be honest. If there’s a responsibility, it’s just to be honest in what I’ve experienced and to put it in my work.

“Black Lightning” premieres Jan. 16 at 9pm on the CW.

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