Interview: 'Black Lightning' Showrunner Salim Akil on the Titular Character, Telling Superhero Stories, and Being Topical

Writer, producer, and filmmaker Salim Akil has, alongside his wife and creative partner Mara Brock [...]

Writer, producer, and filmmaker Salim Akil has, alongside his wife and creative partner Mara Brock Akil, a long and established track record when it comes to delivering quality television that explores the contemporary African American experience. That includes the likes of Soul Food and Girlfriends as well as The Game and Being Mary Jane.

But Akil admits that even he was thunderstruck at how well the superhero format -- a genre he only just entered -- suited the kinds of stories he'd been itching to tell about justice, responsibility, and cultural conflict. The result is Black Lightning, The CW's latest television entry in the world of DC, and a shockingly distinct take on vigilantism and standing up to protect the victimized, as he revealed in conversation with

**** This feels really really fresh, because we've had so many superhero shows in a few years, yet it suits the CW brand, it suits the Berlantiverse aesthetic. So tell me about your way into it creatively – what you saw in Black Lightning that you thought you could bring your sensibility too but also stay true to sort of the spirit of superhero shows.

Salim Akil: It's interesting because what I saw in it was myself. What I saw in Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce, even the villains, are aspects of myself. I knew that I could talk about these different men with a sense of fairness. So to be able to bring a character to life that was a father, had an ex-wife, two daughters, was a principal, it's very layered immediately. As a writer and an artist, you're immediately like, "I can say a lot with this." That's really what made me want to jump right into the character and create.

Black Lightning hasn't had as consistent a publishing history as characters like Superman or Spider-Man or even Black Panther, but you could get little pockets to check out and pull from it. Tell me about the experience of digging through those comics and seeing what resonated with you today, from the '70s, from the '90s, from the 2000s.

The consistent theme was that Jefferson Pierce was a man of the people. That was a consistent thing. I try not to dig too deep into the comics. I had a couple of conversations with Tony Isabella, which was valuable for me. I think more people should talk to him about the character as well, but after talking to Tony and sort of getting the nod to just do what I wanted to do, that's what I did.

I didn't reference. My writers did. They did a whole lot of research, but I sort of wanted to write it from my point of view. That's what you see. Just writing it from my point of view. I wish I could be one of those writers like, "I did. I read every fucking book that they ever printed. Then they gave me archives of stuff they didn't print." But I just sort of took it from my experience.

Tell me about that discovery of Cress, and how good he was going to be in this role. He really fills up this role.

I just give that credit to my wife. She saw it before I did. When he came into the room, I just was like, "He's the better part of me. He's going to represent this character in a way that his voice, his carriage, his demeanor." Cress is a good guy. He's just one of those really good men. Someone that you want to respect you. That kind of thing. So that all came through in his read – and I know that sounds crazy, but it did! It all came through in his read. So it was, like, boom!

What I love about the character is that without the costume, he's still doing his best to do as much good in the world as he can. The costume gives him the sort of leeway to do the things that he's not supposed to be doing. Tell me how that resonated with you, because he clearly as Black Lightning has a degree of frustration and anger, quite often.

Yeah. I guess would you call it a conundrum? When you're given a certain amount of power – like, you're a writer and an employed writer and you put pen to paper and people are going to read what you write. That's power. So if you have that power, you really do have to assess that moment, "How do I use it? How do I use this thing that I know people are going to read what I write. How do I use it?"

Ultimately what we all try to do as artists and writers is that we try to be as pure of heart and mind as we can be. We try to disassociate ourselves from our personal opinions at times and sort of say, "Can we do this fairly?" You know what I mean?

I hope I'm answering your question. I think that's where Jefferson is in terms of being Black Lightning is, how do I make this decision purely? How do I make it as purely as I can so that when I pay the consequences of what I do that I'm okay with those consequences?

What part of this project was outside of your comfort zone that you had to adapt and adjust to?

The fucking special effects and the powers! Because I could literally write this show without powers. He could just be a principal and a dad. I could do that, and I think this show would be good, and I think people would like it. I think people would dig it the same way that they dig it now. The idea of him having powers was like the most difficult part for me. Like, "Oh, OK. He can blow people up. All right."

Tell me about the discussions about where this was going to fit in the superhero world. Rather than being integrated into the stuff that Greg Berlanti's already got on TV, and why you wanted to kind of go and let it be its own thing.

To me, it always had to be its own thing. Just the way I saw it in my head. I just... I don't know. Maybe it's the way that I pitched it. Maybe it's how passionate I was or whatever, but Greg, Peter Roth, Mark Petowitz, they just never gave me any sort of, "No." They were always like they'd sit and calculate and do their thing. Then, "OK. All right. This is your baby." They promised me that, and they've lived up to their word. I know you know in this business that is rare.

What I've seen you guys do in your TV work is, like you do with Being Mary Jane and the tradition of the female-led workplace comedy, you take a genre, a format, and you marry it to what you want to say. Tell me about what was interesting about how the superhero world and what you wanted to say about what's going on in the world right now dovetailed. Did you find that it became a very easy vehicle to express things?

It was very easy. To your point, and I'm glad you mentioned that to the way we did Being Mary Jane, we purposely made her a newscaster so that we could talk about some of the things we want to talk about. I think the character of Jefferson and Black Lightning and Thunder and Anissa and Jennifer and Lightning and Inspector Henderson and Lynn, they all have different points of views which allows me and the other writers to sort of talk about things that are sort of… It's funny that people say it's "topical." Because to me it's not. What it is is a sort of meditation on things that we keep experiencing, right?


Cyclically. I understand people think it's topical, but cyclically we keep experiencing the same shit, man. I wanted to be maybe a little wedge in between it to say, "We're experiencing the same shit, you guys." You know what I mean? Right now people just see it as, "Oh, you guys are really topical." No. If we had done this show three years ago, if we had done it right after Trayvon Martin, if we had done it right it just... It's continuous.

Black Lightning premieres tonight on The CW at 9/8c. Future episodes will continue to air on Tuesdays.