The Star of 'Black Lightning' On Why It’s a Great Time to Be a Black Nerd

I spoke to Black Lightning star Cress Williams and series creator Salim Akil about the dopeness of their show, ‘Black Panther’ and being optimistic about Hollywood.
January 26, 2018, 1:00pm
Cress Williams | Image sources: Netflix 

Salim Akil and Cress Williams are really damn happy throughout our conversation. Everyone is really damn black in this conversation. And as far as superheroes are concerned, the inclusion of blackness has “finally” entered into the entire damn larger conversation.

“I gotta say, this is all so exciting man. I mean it's crazy right? It's like being in the Harlem Renaissance,” an excited Akil tells me. His enthusiasm makes it easy to forget his age. This is a very grown man whose directorial career included the likes of Girlfriends, The Game, Being Mary Jane and now the CW’s Black Lightning.

In case you didn’t already know, Black Lightning is about the blackest thing on the CW (and now airing on Netflix) right now. Loosely based on a DC comic strip, you got a guy named Jefferson Pierce with the powers of electricity. Big whoop. But instead of the same ol’ super powered villains or aliens to take out, his decision to come out of retirement stems from true-to-life street-level crimes that impact his community and that thing called police brutality.

Our main man is of course played by the very smooth, Cress Williams, best known from his stints on 90210, Living Single, and Friday Night Lights among others. Everything about this show is rooted in blackness. No compromises. You never get the sense that it shys away from actual issues that affect its actual viewers of colour (maybe unlike virtually every other superhero show/movie ever?…).

Black Lightning is part of a wave of optimism. Our excitement over the upcoming Black Panther goes deep; there’s a longing that many nerds of colour never fully knew they had. Going in, it was my intention to talk some Black Lightning, but also speak about that fresh optimism that we all feel around this new era of black super heroism.

VICE: Cress, your career is pretty varied. You’ve done so much, Living Single being a personal favourite of mine. But being a superhero, the first black starring superhero for DC, how much did you really want this role?
Cress Williams: Man, more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life, mostly because I’m a big superhero fan. When I started to see all the great things happening with The Avengers and things of that nature, it just seemed obvious that the superhero thing was becoming a respected genre. That made wanting to become a superhero seem so much more important. Sure, I had opportunities but there are only so many leading black superheroes out there in the comic book space. Yeah I knew of the upcoming Black Panther, but I was aged and not as famous. I got an audition for the show Luke Cage and that didn’t work out. So as I was starting to give up, Black Lightning fell into my lap, and I didn’t even have to read the script, I just wanted a shot. And yeah, I was insecure about it, often wondering if some big star was waiting in the wings to take it up, but Salim Akil (creator) said that I was the guy he wanted from the very beginning.

And obviously Salim, this is very different for you. You’re coming from Being Mary Jane , The Game , the iconic Girlfriends. A lot of black-centric shows but how did a DC superhero end up in that mix?
Salim Akil: Coming from BET, we made a deal at Warner Brothers, sitting down with everyone involved in talking about that next big project.For me though, I wanted to reintroduce a certain type of black man into television. My idea was to take all the Milestone Media comic book characters out there and adapt them. Like oh man, in my mind, this was going to be great, but of course...they were all unavailable. But they knew of my interest in comic books, so they said look, we got a project that we’d like to do from DC called Black Lighting, would you be interested? So me, being a black man, we always gotta play it cool, so I played it cool and said, well you know, I’ll take a look at it (laughs). Of course inside I was like, hell yeah (laughs). Why do us black folk always gotta be cool in the moment? (laughs)

Top left to right, creators Mara and Salim Aki | Source: Getty

Just comes natural I guess. But Cress, this isn’t your first DC role here. We’re talking Lois and Clark as Baron Sunday, a villain. That feels like a completely different time compared to now, where we have black heroes at the forefront. How do you measure the importance of seeing that?
Williams: I think it’s paramount and interesting. Villains are a lot of fun generally speaking because they have more texture than most heroes. On one side, it’s two dimensional, and on the other, there’s more colour, because villains are inherently flawed. But here, we’re getting a three dimensional hero. He’s got problems, issues, flaws, and family. He’s not a version of Greek mythology, where he’ll be above what’s going down and swoop in to save the day. He’s in the fray, not above it. It allows me to just play to what’s true. I don’t have to pretend.

Man, when thinking about my short time on Lois And Clark, to now, it’s all just exciting. Just thinking about it now fills me with optimism. After Obama’s presidency, where we ended up with the guy we got now, that optimism was no longer there. Even for me. I started to think we hadn’t made much progress. But seeing moments like this, with Black Panther along with Luke Cage...man. We got a long ways to go, don’t get me wrong, but this is also a testament to the fact that we’ve made progress. I’m extremely excited.

And in the light of #blacklivesmatter, police brutality, and black on black crime, issues that have an effect on black folks like myself and Black Lightning equally. Do you feel it as a responsibility to have them addressed in some way through your art?
Akil: For me, what I feel is a responsibility to be true to who I am. That’s first. If it works in the art, I’ll put it in the art. Ultimately, it’s also about entertainment. We want folks to have fun with the fact that he has powers and that he fights. But in the midst of that, I have to speak and write on the things that I know. I wanted it to be as what people call now, authentic as possible. But here’s the thing, if we’re not talking about so-called black on black crime, whose gonna do it? It’s human on human crime. If people stop putting the black label on it, then maybe folks would pay attention. If it’s just niggas over here killing each other, it just seems like, whatever, let them do their thing. These are Americans, and young human beings. They didn’t put the guns there, nor manufactured them. They didn’t create these drugs out of a lab. So in Black Lightning, yes, we start with those issues, but we expand the thought and vision to say, but why and how?

The conversation around diversity has been making its rounds with #oscarssowhite, and the praise for Get Out ’s recent nominations. Cress, you’ve obviously been around way before any of these conversations were happening through hashtags. Tell me about your own issues up until this point.
Williams: For me, I’ve been in this industry as an actor since the early 90s. I’ve seen things change for the good, and I’ve seen the other kind of thing. When I first started auditioning, the opportunities weren’t there. As a man of colour, you often felt like you were furniture most of the time. More of a device than an actual character. As you move along this system, you’d see these auditions that stated, open to all ethnicities. It would be easy to go, and you’d think, oh hey, things are changing, but then you’d see some character named Irish Smith. O....k, and you’d go in the waiting room and you’re the only person of colour there. So the audition begins, and before you’ve said your first line, you feel the mental wall that says, I don’t have a shot at this at all, and that these people aren’t really considering me. Any actor of colour is familiar with this, well call them fake auditions. Many of them are placed there to make certain people feel like they’ve been responsible to the times.

When the wave of diversity talks began, everyone white would say that it was a great time for us. But even on my end, what I experienced was yeah, it’s a great time for the famous black folk (laughs), because it’s about diversity, but really around famous black folks getting more opportunities. Those still trying to slug it out, you’re in the same boat. My manager and I talk about it all the time. On the other hand, white talent is cultivated. You get people who pop up that haven’t had a job, and suddenly, they’re a breakout star because of the cultivation. That doesn’t often happen with people of colour. I’m hoping we still move forward though. Every actor just wants to be treated as equal.

Image source: Netflix

And Salim, in a lot of ways, folks like yourself have been alternatives to those barriers that exist. This may be obvious, but has it always been intentional on your part given the mostly black on script resume?
Akil: Well I think the secret is out about that right now. Our company motto is that we do black on purpose. There’s this thing that used to go around where it would be, oh this character just happens to be black. Well no. In our stories, the characters are black on purpose, and not only do we find excitement in that, we find life in that. That’s what our business was. That we knew that we could create things for the black community and they would come because they want to see themselves. That’s the secret. It’s just good business. We knew that from the beginning, and respected that market in the same way. We’ve never wavered from it, and god willing, never will. Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Black Panther...they can all come out and all do well. The myth that you can only have one or the other has been broken and busted up. And hopefully, I’ll get to do those Milestone Comics in the future. Put that in the article, show people that I still want it (laughs).

And going back to Black Lightning and other things like it, as a black nerd myself, it’s hard to express how important it is for me personally to see superheroes that look like myself get their shine. How does to be a part of all that?
Williams: Man. A shorthanded answer would be that it's beautiful. It's extremely exciting. But it's interesting, because I guess when you're doing something like this, and you're in the midst of doing it, you almost don't know the full impact it’s having.

Man, people are really showing up impact wise. From Black Panther breaking records to Black Lightning being one of the best performing shows on the CW at the moment.
Akil: You know what was so fucking cool two nights ago man? The second episode came on, and I was sitting there with my boys and one of them was sneaking actually, peaking around the corner because he’s supposed to be in bed. But to see us go to commercial, and to then see a Black Panther trailer? I was like man, what it must feel like to be a black kid right now. To be able to go to school and talk about this stuff. My kids go to private schools, which are predominantly white, and there’s maybe one of five black kids up at that school. For them to be able to walk through the doors, and have that strength, and feel like they have their own super hero...I think that’s great. I remember what it felt for me when people would be talking about these heroes when I was a kid, but couldn’t point to a black Superman. I gotta say, this is all so exciting man. (laughs) I mean it's crazy right? It's like being in the Harlem Renaissance.

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