this is tv’s first black, lesbian superhero
Too often dominated by the straight, white male, Black Lightning is here to remind you that black, gay women can be superheroes too.
“Just reading the breakdown of the character and seeing how bold and strong and powerful she was, I knew she would be an inspiration for little brown girls who looked like me and who grew up in similar cities like myself, and like the city of Freetown in the show,” says 28-year-old actor, Nafessa Williams. She’s not only playing a bold, powerful woman in the TV series Black Lightning -- she’s bringing the first black, lesbian superhero to our screens. It’s a role that is helping to redefine an entire genre.
From Batman to Superman and all those in between, the world of movie superheroes has, like much else, long been dominated by the straight, white male. Despite the fact that Black Panther was initially drawn as a character in 1966’s Fantastic Four #52, it’s also been 20 years since Wesley Snipes played the iconic Blade, and 18 since Samuel L. Jackson stepped into the Avengers world as Fury. It took until 2016 before we began to see caped crusaders of colour translated to screen in the form of Netflix’s Luke Cage and Chadwick Boseman’s vibranium boasting T’Challa in Black Panther, and this slow, slow change in diversity is still lacking in robustness. When DC or Marvel do do queer characters -- for instance Wonder Woman herself or Thor’s bisexual Valkyrie -- they end up mysteriously straight by the time they hit the big screen. That studios don’t believe queer and people of colour can be super is disappointing, boring, reductive and ultimately, super damaging.
Hooray then for The CW Network’s Black Lightning, which seeks to redress superhero inequality in every way. The electrically-charged lead character, Jeff, is a single, middle-aged, black father; his similarly enhanced superhero daughter, Anissa (aka Thunder), played by Nafessa Williams, is a gay, black rights activist . Her girlfriend-in-waiting, Grace Choi, is played by Canadian actor Chantal Thuy. There is just one white, male lead in the series.
Tackling racism -- both externalised and internalised -- the show also examines everyday issues that many people of colour in America are regularly faced with: police brutality, systemic flaws in the education and healthcare systems, the fracturing of communities flooded by liquor stores and fast food.
When the part of Anissa/ Thunder in Salim Akil’s adaptation of Black Lightning was pitched to the 28-year-old actor, Nafessa Williams (who plays Jade in David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks reboot) -- it had immediate appeal. ”The fact that it was going to be the first black superhero family on network TV? It was an absolute no-brainer that I wanted to sign on.”
West Philadelphia born and raised, Nafessa was inspired to become an actress after watching fellow West Philly native Will Smith on The Fresh Prince. “I am who I am because of Will Smith. He did such a great job representing our city in such an amazing way. I said I wanted to be the female Will Smith of Philly and create my own lane because there are no black actresses out of West Philly. He paved the way.” Nafessa was also hugely inspired by The Cosby Show’s Clair and Rudy Huxtable. After college, she even became a lawyer, just like Claire. “But I realised it was the actor part I wanted to emulate, not the lawyer!“
Moving to LA and enlisting Will Smith’s acting coach, Nafessa soon appeared in Meek Mills’s Streets, Queen Latifah’s Brotherly Love and, in 2016, Lynch’s Twin Peaks (“I was nervous and intimidated, but he was one of the sweetest directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s a legend”). But the idea of playing a black, gay superhero, and how that translated meaningfully in the real world, was what particularly appealed to Nafessa. “It’s very necessary and very timely,” she says. “For years, our little black girls and boys have gone to the costume store for Halloween and have had to be superheroes who haven’t looked like them. I’m so excited for this Halloween to see what costumes the kids have.
"The love I’ve been getting from young, black lesbian women has been amazing and really emotional. I’m honoured that you guys are able to see yourselves on TV, that’s what it’s about.”
The sheer number of kids dressing up as the cast of Black Panther, and last year’s Wonder Woman, is edifying. But for young, black lesbian women to see themselves on television? Watching yourself (or a possible version of) represented on screen is important -- when we watch TV we try to relate and hopefully be inspired, or understand ourselves and our place in the world a little better. It’s hard to relate to TV characters who don’t look like you or don’t have the same sexual identity as you. There have been about as many black lesbians on screen as there have black male superheroes; there’s The Wire’s Kima Greggs, but that was nearly 20 years ago, while Queen Latifah was iconique as Cleo in Set It Off (1996) and The L Word’s brooding soldier Tasha was similarly unforgettable. More recently, Orange Is The New Black introduced a wealth of well-rounded sexual identities for women of colour. But we’re still counting on two hands here. “I hope that now we’ll see many more black, bold, brave lesbians walking in their truth in other shows. With Anissa you have this character who is honest about who she is and who is unapologetic about who she is, she’s really out and owning who she is. The love I’ve been getting from young, black lesbian women has been amazing and really emotional. I’m honoured that you guys are able to see yourselves on TV, that’s what it’s about.”
Despite not being gay herself, Nafessa took the same approach to the role as she would any other -- researching the mindset of coming out and understanding that the root of Anisa’s sexuality, as with all sexualities, is about love. “I play against men all the time in film, so this is something different as an artist; you’re looking to stretch yourself, you’re looking to challenge yourself,” she says. “Anisa’s sexuality is a huge part of the role but doesn’t define her. Her struggle is with her super powers rather than coming to terms with her sexuality -- she knows who she is, she came out as a teenager, and her parents are supportive. It’s such a positive role to see on screen, as many LGBT+ teenagers still struggle with coming out to their parents. I hope it means that the parents of young, black lesbians will be inspired to be as supportive.”
The show opens with Anissa leaving prison to the sounds of Billie Holiday’s poignant paeon Strange Fruit. Anissa is strong, a force of her own - she fights for social injustice in her community. She is, in the true sense of the word, an activist. “That’s something we need to see more of -- someone who is willing to stand up and do their part. Be a part of the change that we want to see. That’s who Anissa is; she’s willing to fight for what she believes in, to fight for social injustice, to fight for the peace that she wants to see in her community. And she’s so unapologetic about it that she’s willing to go to prison for it, she’s willing to risk her life. For me, the people who I’ve studied and I went back and got inspiration from were the Harriet Tubmans and the Rosa Parks. Knowing that I could be a voice for the Sandra Blands and the Trayvon Martins, this show has allowed me to tap into my own activist,” she says.
Black Lightning has been the most popular show of the last two years for CW, disproving that flagrantly untrue, long-held myth that ‘only black people will watch black people onscreen’ and ‘black movies about black people don’t sell’. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther has also smashed that fable, becoming the highest grossing superhero movie of all time in the US. It shouldn’t be surprising; many of the themes discussed in both Panther and Lightning are universal. “This is a superhero show but it’s also about a family wanting to save their community and regardless of whatever race you are, you can relate to that. The message too is the family that fights together, stays together,” Nafessa points out. “It’s really a show based on a family and a father -- a black, single father at that -- who is strong and powerful and loving, which is brilliant to show within the black community because it negates all of those messages that we don’t have single back fathers, or fathers who are present or fathers who are educated.” Not only diverse on camera but behind camera, directors include Benny Boom, Tanya Hamilton, Bille Woodruff, Rose Troche... all people who understand the story and the genesis of the narrative. “They know how to tell the story and make it authentic, and it’s the same with Black Panther, of which I’m so, so proud,” Nafessa agrees.
Black Lightning, and Nafessa’s Anissa are an important part in the tide of change, with more women and POC writers and directors joining their comrades in front of the camera to tell nuanced stories that deal with race, politics, love and life. Even if women of colour like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees and Issa Rae are still woefully underrepresented at awards shows. “I think we have to take matters into our own hands and create the change,” Nafessa says. “Awards are great because it’s cool to be acknowledged by your peers, but I just go to work and do the work. That’s reward for me.”
Series one of Black Lightning is on Netflix now.