‘Black Lightning’ Showrunner and HUMANITAS Trustee Salim Akil on Season 2 and the Story’s Social Relevance
One of the most layered superhero TV series out there right now is The CW’s Black Lightning, with its approach to examining consequences and looking at how having powers can affect a family and a community, and not just the individual with them who is faced with using them for good or for more nefarious activities. In its second season return, “The Book of Consequences: Chapter One: Rise of the Green Light Babies,” Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), aka Black Lightning, and his family have survived the attack that was orchestrated by Tobias (Marvin Jones III), but he is still concerned for the safety of the students at the school where he’s the principal, as well as for his own daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), aka Thunder, and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), who’s still struggling with her own newly discovered powers.
Following a screening of the Season 2 premiere at the offices of The CW, Collider (along with a handful of media outlets) participated in a Q&A with showrunner Salim Akil, who also wrote and directed the episode. During the interview, he talked about the social relevance of the story they’re telling, approaching the storytelling this season as books, why Jennifer is struggling so hard with her powers, the kids in the pods, bringing in veteran black talent, what’s to come with Tobias, and where Gambi (James Remar) fits in now, after his secrets have come to light. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
One of the things you do on this show, that I really love and appreciate, is the cultural relevancy of everything that’s going on today. In Season 2, you kick things off with police brutality that’s reminiscent of what happened to Eric Garner. What made you decide to do that?
SALIM AKIL: This is a never-ending story, and we’re at a critical point where with artists, if it’s on their heart or their mind, they have to express what they’re thinking, if they so choose to. I have three boys and a daughter, and I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid when my son goes to the mall. I’m afraid when they go on a trip with their school. It’s on my mind and it’s on my heart, and it seems like it’s not stopping. It seems like there’s a concerted effort to do this kind of stuff. We’ve just heard about the young man (Botham Jean) who got shot in his own home. We’re not safe anywhere. So, it’s just on my mind and on my heart.
Throughout the series, social justice issues are mirrored in your storyline. Is that something you want to continue to do?
AKIL: Yeah. It’ll pop up in the lives of our characters, the same way it pops up in our lives, every day. We’re not gonna tell that story, every week. I have a family, and I want to talk about family issues, as well. [Episode 201 is called] “Book of Consequences,” like a comic thing. We’re doing books now. This is Book 1 of 4, and then we’ll tell another book, and then another book. This book is the “Book of Consequences,” and what you’re seeing are the consequences from what this family went through last season. You’ll see the consequences of what they went through because 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 for the family. What are the effects of Green Light in the community? What does that do? It’s giving people an excuse to shoot first and ask questions later.
If you remember, back in the 80’s, Hillary Clinton called us Super Predators and it gave the police a reason to come into 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. But I also wanted to deal with the family, in terms of where they are emotionally and what kind of stress they’re under. Lynn suggests that Jefferson get therapy. I wanted to talk about black people and therapy. We don’t believe in that shit, but we’re the number one people who need it. After slavery and Jim Crow, they should have sent an army of therapists into the black communities to heal people. All this shit that you see going on in our community is because we haven’t healed properly from the amount of oppression that we’ve gone through. If you can say that being raised by a bad parent fucks your brain up and has effects for you, for the rest of your life, and you pass it on through DNA to your children, then 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. I wanted to at least say, “Maybe, could we get a little help?”
Are you going to get deeper into why Jennifer is having so much trouble dealing with her powers, as opposed to Anissa, who’s clearly not struggling?
AKIL: Yeah, we do. We get into it, in depth. The simple answer to that, and it’s not very complicated, is that she’s afraid of what it means for her future. Last season, one of the questions she had is, “Can I have kids?” One of the questions she’ll have this year is, “If I have sex, will I hurt somebody because I can’t control my powers?” We’ll also deal with the issue of everyone knowing that these “pod kids” exist. There’s gonna be a negative spin on metas. It will be about, “Am I hunted? Am I a monster? What am I? I don’t really know what I am.” It’s hard enough, just being a young woman, and then being a young black woman. Now, having these powers that everybody’s afraid of, she can’t even go to school. So, we’ll deal with it all.
How will all of that complicate her relationship with Khalil, even more? Even though they’re seemingly on opposite sides, will she have more of an understanding for what he’s going through?
AKIL: It’s funny that you say that because he killed her father, but he killed Black Lightning. Would he have done the same thing, had he known that was her dad? He’s got an excuse. To your point, now that she knows he has a certain type of power and she has powers, there will be an understanding. There will be some sort of understanding. I don’t know if they’ll get back together, but at least she’ll understand it.
Is Anissa going to take on a role that’s more like being a Robin Hood of the ‘hood, this season, in her attempt to help the black community?
AKIL: Well, we’re talking about consequences again. She’s trying to figure out that line. What is a so-called hero? Is it okay to go take money from supposedly bad people, and give it to good people? Who’s bad and who’s good? That’s the line I wanna walk with that. It’s not just that she’s doing good. It’s more like, when you do good, there are consequences. When you watch the show, you’ll see what the consequences of taking money can be. She’s gotta find that line, and we’ll deal with that. We haven’t come up with a name for her alter ego yet.
Anissa, or Thunder, is the first black lesbian superhero. Do you plan on touching on homophobia within the black community?
AKIL: I’m sure it will come up. What I didn’t wanna do, last year or this year, is every time she pops up, have “the gay episode” or “the lesbian episode.” If I give attention to it, I wanna give some in-depth attention to it. I wanna talk about how it is now, and in the future. I don’t want it to just be, “Oh, she’s not liked because she’s a lesbian.” That’s probably the majority of what’s going on, but there are some other issues that I find interesting, like the idea that you can have a lover and they can get sick, and you can’t really help them because, in certain states, you can’t get married, or people don’t recognize it. Also, if you and your lover have a child, in certain states, there’s no real legal place to have a family. That, to me, is some sick shit. Excuse my language. That’s taking away people’s freedoms. Those issues are much more important to me than how other people feel about you. I really don’t care how people feel about me. That’s my attitude it. But when you start hindering my freedom to do what I want to do, I start getting a little antsy about it.
How similar will the story about the kids in the pods be to the separations of families at the border? Is that something you’re drawing from?
AKIL: Yeah. The idea is basically that 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 it’s the law.” I remind people that not too long ago, I couldn’t drink from a fountain, just because somebody said it was the law. Laws aren’t infallible. The idea that the government says they own these people is directly related to that idea. It’s hurtful, when you have children, to see parents being separated. I saw this video of this woman and her husband, and they were reuniting her with her child, but the child wouldn’t even look at the mom and was running away from her. I can’t imagine how hurtful that could be. I can’t watch TV and not talk about that. I’m just too sensitive of a person. I can’t do it.
This season, like last season, has some high profile veteran black talent, with the addition of Robert Townsend and Bill Duke. Where else are you going with that?
AKIL: Well, we’re gonna keep swinging at it. I just try to spend the money where I can. After Girlfriends, we’ve always had people coming to us, at Akil Productions. After I did the movies, we’ve had people who want to work with us. It’s just about what the project is and if it’s a fit. We never really have an issue with people wanting to work with us, especially now, in this genre. Everybody wants to fight and fly, so we’re always looking for ways to have fun with talent. We’re gonna continue to try to get those folks in and have fun with them
Since he can only hide out for so long, what can you say about what’s to come for Tobias?
AKIL: Oh, just wait. That’s a good question, but I can’t really answer it. But he’s gonna do a different type of hiding. I can put it like that.
With some question marks still left about him, what can you say about Gambi’s story, this season?
AKIL: They haven’t really had an opportunity to get their relationship back together, and the way that we’re moving that storyline is that there’s just no time. They’ve gotta work together. They’re father and son, so it’s not like they’re not gonna have a relationship. That’s not even a question. The question is, how do they move forward? Once we slow the train down from the consequences of what’s going on, then maybe they can sit down and actually have a conversation, but right now, we’re moving them forward. It’s like we’re playing rock ‘n’ roll, while last year we played a little jazz. I’m trying to throw everything up front, which will force me, in the back end, to come up with something creative. I can’t get comfortable.
Black Lightning returns for Season 2 on The CW on October 9th.