The first season of “Black Lightning” on the CW tackled topical storytelling around gang and gun violence, and drugs in inner cities. With that foundation under its feet, the second season will dive even deeper into tales of police brutality and family separation.
“We’re at a critical point where artists, if they so choose — if it’s on their heart or their mind — have to express what they’re thinking,” says showrunner Salim Akil. “It’s on my mind and it’s on my heart, and it seems like it’s not stopping.”
Picking up in the immediate aftermath of the events of the first season finale, “Black Lightning’s” sophomore year finds police in Freeland responding to calls that young African-American men are under the influence of green light — a drug that creates powers ranging from super strength to projecting a truth serum making those in your range unable to lie — and using that as “an excuse to shoot first and ask questions later.”
“If you remember back in the ’80s, Hillary Clinton called us ‘super predators,’ and it gave the police a reason to come in communities all over the country and just start putting bullets in people’s asses. That’s what I wanted to deal with in terms of Freeland,” Akil says.
Akil shares that he has also been deeply affected by the family separations at the border, which have influenced the way in which he tells the story of the discovery that missing children from decades ago were actually held in stasis pods and experimented on by a government agency because of the powers they were starting to exhibit.
Although the truth about where those missing kids have been came out at the end of the first season, now their families will have to fight to be reunited with them, Akil says.
“The idea was basically what the American government is telling the so-called aliens or people crossing the border is that ‘at this point we own your children and we decide what we want to do with them.’ And then they say, ‘It’s the law, it’s the law,’ and I remind people, ‘Well it was the law not too long ago that I couldn’t drink from a fountain,'” he explains. “The laws aren’t infallible, so the idea that the government says that they own these people, to me, was directly related to that idea. … I can’t watch TV and not talk about that. I’m too sensitive of a person.”
But, he notes, these issues will “pop up in the lives of our characters the same way it pops up in our lives,” meaning he doesn’t plan to tell a highly-charged political story every week. Instead, he also wants to focus heavily on the family issues now that both of Pierce daughters have come into their powers.
“We’re doing books now — this is book one of four. This book is the ‘Book of Consequences,’ and what you’re seeing are the consequences from what this family went through last season,” he says. “I didn’t want to just stop and then start some whole new story. I wanted to see what the consequences were for the city of Freeland as well as the family.”
Since the show is jumping right back into the action, Akil admits they haven’t had an opportunity for Jefferson (Cress Williams) and Gambi (James Remar) to work out emotions after Gambi killed Martin Proctor (Gregg Henry). While the move allowed Lynn (Christine Adams) to expose the experiments on the pod kids, it still fractured a “father-son” relationship.
“The way we’re moving the storylines is there is no time [to work through it],” Akil says. “[They] either got to work together or not. … We’re moving. We’re playing rock-and-roll. Last year I think we played a little jazz.”
While Anissa (Nafessa Williams) took to her new abilities swiftly in the first season, Jennifer (China Anne McClain) struggled to gain control of them, and also struggled to accept them emotionally. Akil says that will continue in the second season.
“She’s afraid of what it means for her future,” he says, noting that in the first season she wondered if she could have kids, but this season she’ll wonder, “If I have sex, will I hurt somebody?”
And now that the secret is out that powers are possible, Jennifer will also be plagued by thoughts of “Am I hunted? Am I a monster? What am I?” Akil continues.
“It’s hard enough just being a young woman, then being a young black woman, and now having these powers that everybody’s afraid of.”
One way the show may approach Jennifer coping is through therapy, which Akil feels the African-American community doesn’t talk about enough.
“We don’t believe in that s—, but we’re the No. 1 people who need it. After slavery and Jim Crow, they should have sent an army of therapists into the black communities to heal people,” he says. “All of the s— you see in our communities is because we haven’t healed properly from the amount of abuse and oppression, and if you can say that being raised by a bad parent f—s your brain up and you pass it onto your children, than what do you think years and years and years and years of oppression has done to a whole group of people? And so I wanted to at least mention it — at least say, ‘Maybe we could get a little help.'”
And just because Anissa is comfortable with herself and her abilities, doesn’t mean she will have an easy time this season, either. Not only does she have to figure out the line of what being a hero actually means, according to Akil, but sometimes her idea of it won’t be in line with her father’s, which will create new conflict.
“They’ve always had different points of view, but now it’s becoming more extreme because the situation is more extreme,” Akil says. “[But] I think the conversation is what’s important.”
“Black Lightning” Season 2 premieres Oct. 9 on the CW.