iINTERVIEW | Black Lightning’s NAFESSA WILLIAMS :: It’s Like Thunder!
On The CW’s newest superhero series Black Lightning NAFESSA WILLIAMS is preparing to bring down the house as the iconic DC Comics hero gets back into the game and brings the “Thunder” down on social injustice.
When Greg Berlanti had announced that he and his production team had begun to lay the ground work for another DC Comics property to emerge in primetime, many speculated that the bubble was near about to burst on the superhero genre. Berlanti and his squad had co-opted most of the primetime line-up on The CW beginning with the hit Arrow and followed up the success of that series with the spin-off of The Flash. Without missing a beat they would soon launch the team-up series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and when CBS gave up on Supergirl they simply brought the Maid of Might over to The CW properly aligning with the rest of the primetime legion of wonders.
Where Berlanti and his production team would find the slot on The CW for another DC adaptation was just incomprehensible, especially after adding the seminal reimagining of the Archie Comics with Riverdale. There are other networks on the air after all, so they persevered. They had come up with a decisively different premise, pitched not as an origin story, but a reintroduction of one of DC’s most groundbreaking characters. It wasn’t long before the show was announced and Black Lightning had found a home — on FOX. The network is home to another DC property; the Batman prequel Gotham. A modest draw for the network, but not a ratings monster.
FOX requested a pilot based on the pitch, and the partnership between Berlanti and the series’ creators/show-runners Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil two of the entertainment industry’s most outspoken creatives dedicated to championing cultural diversity and awareness got to work. Black Lightning hadn’t even gone to lens and it was already proving super-charged! Audiences were getting amped…and then FOX “passed” on the show, but before it even had a moment to make news, it broke that Black Lightning had already found a new home — and of all places: The CW! The annual crossover stunt just got EPIC!
When Lightning Strikes Twice
Black Lightning follows the story of Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams) a single father, celebrated Olympic athlete and high school principal, who at one-time had led a double life as a costumed avenger defending the streets and urban neighborhoods of Freehold against drug lords and crooked politicians. The hero became a beacon of hope for his community, and struck fear in his adversaries. Unfortunately, where his contemporary super-powered friends in nearby metropolises won the adulation of its citizens, the Black Lightning was hunted as a vigilante.
Cress Williams as the titular hero .
The late nights avenging took a toll not only on Pierce’s own body and soul, but created strife in his marriage. Ultimately hanging up his suit, Pierce returned to life as a private citizen. He now takes on a different kind of challenge. Jefferson has his hands full keeping an entire student body on the straight-and-narrow, and he’s the principal of a charter school dedicated to empowering those who might otherwise feel disenfranchised. Although his marriage dissolved largely due to his super heroics, he maintains a strong bond with his wife Lynn (Christine Adams), and is a single father raising two daughters in a radically toxic climate and an era of growing social concerns.
Already it’s easy to frame how unlike its predecessors Black Lightning is. The series is not centered on the heroic journey of discovery as the hero navigates the responsibilities of wielding great power for good and carries the weight of that burden. Jefferson Pierce knows all too well exactly the high voltage potential he’s capable of generating, and the consequences of using that force, especially when it comes in defense of his family and in service to his neighbors. The times are growing more uncertain and the Black Lightning is needed once again!
A Thunder Storm
His two daughters, fiercely independent and conscious of daddy’s helicopter parenting — never mind living in the ably impressive shadow of their father, have their own obstacles to face. Stepping out from under the cloud of comfort is Anissa Pierce, the eldest daughter played by Nafessa Williams who is proving as formidable in real life as her primetime alter-ego. Stepping up and into a spotlight that is undoubtedly much more scrutinized than the average new primetime drama. DC Comics fans are a unique and fiercely dedicated group, but Williams has already familiarized herself with much of the hero’s backstory and its primal significance.
Nafessa Williams Photo credit: Ricky Codio
“Black Lightning was the first black character to stand-alone in his own comic published back in 1977 created by DC Comics,” Williams reveals. “Black Lightning’s not your typical superhero, [or] in his earlier twenties — you watch him navigate those challenges of having to come out of retirement — and the effects that might have on him physically, mentally along with his family.” Williams agrees that for her superhero father Jefferson Pierce to decide to return to his secret identity is not a decision he approaches lightly, but fortunately for him, he won’t be alone in his battle for truth and justice.
Similarly Nafessa identifies heavily with her primetime alter-ego, Anissa Pierce. “I come in as his older daughter, who is a fighter, the advocate, the activist, the lesbian, the medical student — the superhero — overprotective big sister,” she details. “There are so many dynamic layers to who she is — that was one of the reasons why I was really excited to take on this role. It was unlike anything I had ever done before. She just comes with a really strong voice that I believe little brown girls who look just like me need to hear from.” The way that Williams describes Anissa it appears that there is a lot of her father in the character.
“I love what Jefferson Pierce stands for,” Nafessa asserts. “He’s an advocate for education; he believes that through education we can all come out superheroes.” The fiercely determined actor dove deep into knowing as much as she could about the world of Black Lightning. “I studied as much as I could about who he was, the essence of who Black Lightning was knowing that I inherit a bit of that essence. Black Lightning is a hero to us — he’s a savior, and when I’m working on my character I imagine that Anissa is like the son he never had.” Indeed Anissa does literally inherit some of her father’s strength and power, and will eventually assume her own dual-identity.
Black Lightning — Image BLK_FIRST_LOOK_THUNDER.jpg — Pictured: Nafessa Williams as Thunder — Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW — © 2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.
Though she still revealed the excitement she and the cast all felt the first time that Cress Williams walked on set as his powered-up namesake: “We freaked out when we saw him! He is Black Lightning — his voice, his physique — he really just embodies Black Lightning. He just gives you the vibe!” The pride in her voice is evident, as is the enthusiasm she has over the camaraderie that is developing among her TV family. “The chemistry we all have — was just instant!” It’s a trait that follows into all of the Berlanti shows; the casting is pivotal especially if the audience is to believe in this nuclear family that can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
“When I first got to my audition and I saw China Anne McClain (who plays little sister Jennifer, the soon-to-become “Lightning”) in the hallway and we spoke,” Nafessa said, “it was like an immediate sisterly bond — from the minute we saw each other. It was beautiful — it was destiny!” Which is exactly what series creators Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil are hoping will come through on screen for fans; Akil has said he has had to remind himself that he and his wife are producing a superhero series, especially when at the core the authenticity of the family is what is driving the drama forward — their fierce love and devotion is the true force powering Black Lightning.
Nafessa admits that working with the Akil’s is a dream come true. “The fact that they were a part of the show was the number one reason why I wanted to do it,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to work with them since the beginning — I love the way they tell stories. They are keeping things really true and authentic to who we are as people and as a culture — and it’s not just about being a black family — it’s about love, and inspiring people. Being true to who you are makes us all superheroes.” The Black Lightning family won’t always be fighting the metahuman villain of the week. Sometimes Anissa might have to face more complicated issues at home.
“Although she’s very feminine, there’s a masculine side to her — a tomboy inside of who Anissa is.” In the series pilot episode several references are made about Anissa’s own activism, including her sister’s pet name for her: Harriett Tubman referring to the civil rights heroine who saved countless lives braving the Underground Railroad. “There are these wonderful messages placed so well within our script, and I’m honored to be named after Harriet Tubman — it keeps these legends alive.” While in the midst of celebrating Black History Month and especially highlighting the importance of cultural diversity, the arrival of Black Lightning is well apparent.
The series debuted in the nation’s capital during the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s weekend, and the placement of such an honor was on the forefront of the actress’ mind. “It’s such an emotional ride for me,” Nafessa revealed about premiering at an event celebrating the late civil rights icon. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just one of those people that you’d wish you could have met. He’s the epitome of ‘everything’ to me! It’s a blessing — I’m so honored.” Pulling it all together for the rising star, who gave up a particularly significant position in the DA’s office in the homicide division, Williams charted her own path that’s led her to Black Lightning.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, while pursuing a degree in law, Williams never lost sight of her passion for acting. “The creative process is awesome — I’m very particular of the music that I listen to as I’m preparing for my role. Beyonce’s ‘Freedom’ is getting pumped up — you have no idea!” She carves out a place in trailer, alongside her formfitting crimefighting ensemble, to remind herself of the trailblazers that have paved the way. “In my dressing room I have pictures of Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. — I want to be a voice for them — reminding myself in my creative process that I am a voice for them.”
Indeed as politics continue to carve up the pieces creating strained divides, Black Lightning will endeavor to remind us that in coming together, we are stronger. “He’s a hero for today,” Nafessa proclaims with fierce certainty. “I’m from Philly, which is very similar to Freeland (the city in which the story of Black Lightning evolves) and this black superhero is coming to save us! That image alone…when kids turn on the TV and they will see themselves — It is time! It is necessary and it’s needed — here we are!”
Black Lightning starring Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce aka “Thunder” airs on The CW, Tuesday nights @ 9pm.
Nafessa Williams Photo credit: Ricky Codio