When The Comfort Zone Is The Danger Zone: Creating ‘Black Lightning’

Black Lightning — “LaWanda: The Book of Hope.” Pictured: Cress Williams as Black Lightning — Photo: Guy D’Alema/The CW — © 2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

Tonight’s episode of Black Lightning opens with a drug deal and a kidnapping, and ends with a shocking reveal. WonderCon audiences got an early look at “Sins of the Father” on Sunday, and showrunner Salim Akil later sat down with reporters to talk about creating Freeland and its characters.

No spoilers here– just hints of what the future might hold.

Creating Freeland

Black Lightning’s hometown is based on Akil’s own: Richmond, California, which has its own history of crime and violence. Despite those troubles, Akil says he knew people who were reluctant to leave their own neighborhood.

Salim Akil
“Black Lightning” showrunner Salim Akil talks to fans at WonderCon in Anaheim, CA on March 25, 2018. Photo by Lariel.

“I knew people who had never been to the beach. And we have a beach in Richmond,” he said. “So in the minds of a lot of folk in those sort of cities, that’s it, that’s it. And it’s hard to say or do anything to get them out of that mentality. Because then it becomes a fear… it becomes a sort of fear to move out your comfort zone. But what we don’t realize sometimes is that in those neighborhoods the comfort zone is the danger zone. … but we’re so used to it that we’re comfortable with the violence. We’re comfortable with the drugs around us. We’re comfortable with all of it. And what I’m trying to show is that we shouldn’t be.”

Akil said he is trying to intensify things into reality. “Some of these towns are more intense than Freeland and they don’t have Black Lightning. They got the gangs, they got police, they got the drugs, they don’t have a Black Lightning.”

Freeland’s savior

Despite the comic-book origins, there is a religious element to Black Lightning. It’s not that of any one religion, but rather the idea of needing a leader to guide people to the safety of a promised land.The religious sensibility is reflected in episode titles like “LaWanda: The Book Of Hope” and tonight’s “The Sins Of The Father.”

“Everybody wants a hero. Isn’t that what Jesus is all about? Do you want somebody to come save you? From yourself, from others?” Akil asked. “Jesus was a superhero. He had powers, right? That’s what people are identifying with. That’s why you see some of the episodes people call him Black Jesus. They want a savior.”

Akil said the desire for a savior is why comic book heroes can be so effective in speaking out about social issues, and he is laying groundwork for more discussions. “I’ve read the Bible, I’ve read the Qu’ran, I read the Torah, I read the Book of the Dead… I’ve read enough to have figured out some things about life, and I’m trying to impart them in a way that doesn’t scare people,” he said.

Freeland’s villains

The show’s writers say they are following Akil’s lead in creating Black Lightning’s nemesis, Tobias Whale, an albino black man who says he hates black people. When asked about that hate, Akil said, “Sometimes I don’t like black people. But I love them. And so… as an artist if you’re not afraid to sort of examine all aspects of who you are… I think every black person has had that experience where a crime has been committed and you’re looking at the TV and it’s like, ‘Oh, God, please don’t let him be black.’”

Akil said Church doesn’t actually feel hate for black people. Instead, he said it’s dislike, based on how he has been treated. “His father would tell him, ‘You’re not black, you’re not white, you’re not nothing,’ so his hatred, or his dislike for black folk actually comes from his father and the way that he was treated by black folk, and we’ll see more of that as the series goes on,” he said.

Black Lightning — “Black Jesus.”  Pictured: Jill Scott as Lady Eve — Photo: Carin Baer/The CW — © 2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

It doesn’t appear that we will see any more of another nemesis, Lady Eve, killed by an electric gun a few episodes back. Akil said the death was poetic, but he hated killing the character off. He praised actress Jill Scott for her performance. “Jill brings a special voice to anything that she does,” he said. “I gave her the script and she created this persona… the way that she talks and the way that she moves and she helped pick out her wardrobe, and so most of that was Jill.”

So, will other comic book characters make appearances in Freeland? Akil said to keep watching, telling reporters, “They’re already in there. You just don’t know it, maybe. They’re already in there. You’ll see them.”

Black Lightning airs Tuesday nights at 9/8 Central on The CW.

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