‘ Black Light­ning’ helps make TV his­tory

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - News - BY RICK BENT­LEY TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

LOS AN­GE­LES — The decades af­ter Su­per­man sparked the mas­sive­world of comic book su­per­heroes didn’t fea­ture a lot of cham­pi­ons of color.

The few that made their way into the printed pages were sup­port­ing play­ers, and only a few by the mid ’ 70s starred in their own comic books. Luke Cage was Marvel’s an­swer to the lack of di­ver­sity when the “Hero for Hire” de­but in his own comic in 1972. The big­gest change for DC Comics came in 1977 with the first is­sue of “Black Light­ning” gave the com­pany its first African- Amer­i­can su­per­hero to star in his own book.

It’s been more than 40 years, but the TV and film worlds have faced the same sit­u­a­tion. Out­side the Net­flix se­ries “Luke Cage” and the up­com­ing Marvel film “Black Pan­ther,” there have been no other main­stream black su­per­heroes star­ring in their own projects.

That small world is a lit­tle big­ger with “Black Light­ning,” a new CW Net­work se­ries based on the 1977 comic book. CressWil­liams stars as Jef­fer­son Pierce, a high school prin­ci­pal who gave up his crime fight­ing ways nine years ago. He’s traded his elec­tri­cal abil­i­ties for sav­ing young peo­ple through ed­u­ca­tion. That changes when his fam­ily is threat­ened by the gang vi­o­lence that has taken over the city since Black Light­ning went into re­tire­ment.

Wil­liams wants “Black Light­ning” to be a ma­jor spark for more di­ver­sity in comic book- in­spired projects.

“Ba­si­cally, all I had was Su­per­man,” Wil­liams said. “I hope that that keeps grow­ing, not only for African Amer­i­cans but for ev­ery eth­nic­ity, gen­der, re­li­gion. I want ide­ally ev­ery­one to be able to look and go, that’sme. I want them to find some sort of rep­re­sen­ta­tive that they grow up and can look to the screens and say, ‘ I see me. I see me here. I see me there.’ Not just for us, but for ev­ery­one.

“I think his­tory is re­peat­ing it­self, but, won­der­fully. We’re not the only ones re­peat­ing it. I think it’s beau­ti­ful that we have Luke Cage, that we have us, and we have Black Pan­ther, so we’re, kind of, con­quer­ing ev­ery pos­si­ble out­let.”

Wil­liams comes to the se­ries with a long re­sume of TV roles, in­clud­ing work­ing on “Code Black,” “Hart of Dixie,” “Fri­day Night Lights,” “ER,” “Veron­ica Mars” and “Nash Bridges.” His first leap into the comic book TV world was a role on “Lois & Clark: The New Ad­ven­tures of Su­per­man.”

The Fuller­ton Col­lege had the act­ing back­ground but he was a lit­tle weak in re­gards to the comic book his­tory of Black Light­ning. He found Black Light­ning comics from the ’ 70s, ’ 90s and 2000s to fill out the back­ground of the char­ac­ter.

All that worked be­cause the pro­ducer knewas soon as Wil­liams came into the room for the au­di­tion that he was the right per­son not only to play Black Light­ning but also Prin­ci­pal Pierce. They had to find some­one to han­dle both be­cause both Light­ning and Pierce will be equally in­volved in try­ing to save a com­mu­nity that is in dire straits.

The se­ries isn’t just about Black Light­ning fight­ing a vil­lain with equally im­pres­sive su­per pow­ers. The show is grounded in re­al­ity where the bad guys sell drugs, com­mit mur­der without hes­i­ta­tion and have par­a­lyzed most of the com­mu­nity with ter­ror tac­tics. And, there’s not a lot of help from law en­force­ment as Pierce learns when he’s ran­domly pulled over by the po­lice try­ing to find a man who robbed a liquor store. The only sim­i­lar­ity is the sus­pect is de­scribed as black.

It sounds a lit­tle odd, but re­al­ity was the key to cre­at­ing the comic book- in­spired show. Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Salim Akil (“The Game”) drewfrom his life in cre­at­ing the se­ries.

“When I started, the char­ac­ter of Jef­fer­son is al­ready a com­mu­nity based su­per­hero. He’s al­ready a prin­ci­pal. He’s al­ready a father. So, it gave me the op­por­tu­nity to talk about things that were per­sonal to me,” Salim Akil said. “I grew up in a com­mu­nity like Free­land. I was sur­rounded by those things that you see in Free­land and in Chicago and Oak­land and Watts.

“So, it came nat­u­rally. It wasn’t a choice made out of, hey, this is what we want to say. It came out of a choice of this is what I know and this is what we know. So, let’s do what’s real. I guess the word peo­ple are us­ing now is ‘ au­then­tic.’ So let’s do what’s au­then­tic and real to me, which I think ev­ery­body em­braced.”

Giv­ing the show such a re­al­is­tic base is one of the things Wil­liams likes best about “Black Light­ning.”

“As artists, we want to en­ter­tain, ob­vi­ously, but when you see­what’s go­ing on in the world, the job of art is, also, to speak to it and be im­pact­ful,” Wil­liams said. “I mean, I can only speak for my­self that once I leave this planet, I want to know that some­thing that I did made a dif­fer­ence a touch to it. And so, I was just ec­static.

“This is an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity to en­ter­tain but, also, to speak to life.”

Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mara Brock Akil (“Girl­friends”) echoeswhatWil­liams said by stress­ing that in the time we are in, peo­ple should be ask­ing them­selves what they can do to make change for the bet­ter. That doesn’t mean individually, added Mara Brock Akil, but “for our fam­i­lies, for our com­mu­nity, for our nation, for the­world.”

The first sea­son of “Black Light­ing” airs Tues­days fol­low­ing “The Flash” through April 17. The sci- fi drama “The 100” will take over the time slot start­ingApril 24.


Cress Wil­liams stars as Black Light­ning in the CW se­ries “Black Light­ning.”

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