Unlike the main character in his new drama series “Black Lightning,” producer-writer Salim Akil, has no discernible super power. He can’t harness and control electricity. He doesn’t don a mask and fancy costume to fight evildoers in the gritty city streets.
Even so, Akil, who was born in Oakland and raised in Richmond, sees a lot of himself in The CW series.
“I’m drawing from my own life,” he says. “This show is a way for me to express myself. It gives me the opportunity to talk about the things that are personal to me.”
Based on the DC Comics crusader introduced in 1977, “Black Lightning” stars Cress Williams as Jeff Pierce, father of two daughters and a principal of a charter high school that serves as a safe haven for young people in a neighborhood overrun by gang violence. Back in the day, he was a vigilante who used his electrifying powers to keep the streets safe in his hometown of Freeland.
When the saga begins, Pierce has been out of the superhero game for nearly a decade while keeping his Black Lightning alter ego a secret. But with crime and corruption on the rise in Freeland and a local gang wreaking havoc, he’s compelled to suit up again.
Akil is running the show along with Mara Brock Akil, his longtime wife and producing partner. They’ve worked together on TV series like “Girlfriends,” “The Game” and “Being Mary Jane,” but “Black Lightning,” they insist, is mainly his vision.
Salim Akil, in fact, originally wanted to call the city in the series Richmond, but he thought better of it, picking a title that sounded somewhat similar.
“Growing up, I was surrounded by those things that you see in Freeland and in Chicago and Oakland and Watts,” he says. ” … (But) I didn’t want to make people feel bad about being in the communities that they were in, so I called it Freeland, instead. It’s a constant reminder when I’m writing that this is a story about me and about the people that I know. And I want to show them respect.”
“Black Lightning” is part of a fresh pop cultural trend that is putting black superheroes at the center of film and television franchises after years of being marginalized. The show follows in the footsteps of Netflix’s “Luke Cage,” and precedes next month’s big-screen premiere of “Black Panther.”
Lead actor Williams feels honored to be part of the wave.
“I’m stoked,” he says. “As a kid, basically all I had was Superman. (Now) we have so many things to choose from. And I hope that keeps growing, not only for African Americans, but for every ethnicity, gender and religion. Ideally, I want everyone to be able to grow up and look at the screens and say, ‘Yeah, I see me. I see me here. I see me there.”
Williams has enjoyed a long and successful screen career, but his résumé is mainly made up of supporting roles. This is his first shot at headlining a broadcast TV series, and Akil considers it a case of casting kismet.
“When Cress started saying the (scripted) words, it was like he was the better part of me,” Akil raves. “It’s like a reflection of who I hoped to be — the way that he carried himself and the way that his voice commanded the words. And that’s what got it for me, because it was like, ‘If I could be that guy’ …”
The show also represents a big swing for Akil, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate who knew as early as the age of 4 that he wanted to work in the entertainment industry.
“My mother was a single mom. Back in the day, the theaters had double features,” he recalls. “My mother would have to work, so she would drop me off at the movie theater. She knew some of the people who worked there, and I would just watch the movies over and over and over again. And I’ve always loved storytelling. Used to sit up and watch Johnny Carson and ‘The Honeymooners’ and all those good shows. So way back then I knew this is what I wanted to do. I’ve been blessed to be able to do it.”
Contact Chuck Barney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.
When: 9 p.m., Jan. 16
Where: The CW
‘Black Lightning’: Richmond native brings new-look superhero to The CW