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'Black Lightning' creator Salim Akil on the masks black people often must wear

Cress Williams plays Jefferson Pierce in the CW series,
Cress Williams plays Jefferson Pierce in the CW series, "Black Lightning."
Bob Mahoney/The CW
Cress Williams plays Jefferson Pierce in the CW series,
Executive producer Salim Akil says he used his own "driving while black" incidents as inspiration for an episode of "Black Lightning."
Bob Mahoney/The CW
Cress Williams plays Jefferson Pierce in the CW series,
Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce and China Anne McClain as Jennifer Pierce in "Black Lightening."
Bob Mahoney/The CW

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For years, there’s been a real scarcity of black superheroes in film and television. But you wouldn't know it if you were an alien sent to Earth in 2018.

On the Marvel side, there's the much-anticipated "Black Panther" film and the Netflix show, "Luke Cage." And now, DC Comics has spawned the new CW series, "Black Lightning."

By day, Black Lightning is Jefferson Pierce, a former Olympian, current high-school principal and divorced father. Pierce has given up crime-fighting for almost a decade when we meet him, but he reluctantly returns to his superhero ways to battle a violent gang that's taken over his city of Freeland.

Salim Akil is the showrunner of "Black Lightning," which airs Tuesday nights on The CW. He and his wife, Mara Brock Akil, executive produce the series, which grew out of an overall deal the two signed with Warner Bros.

Salim Akil spoke with The Frame host John Horn about "Black Lightning" and why it's important to him to incorporate tough, real-life issues — like gun violence and police brutality — into a show about a superhero.

"Black Lightning" executive producer Salim Akil, left, with Cress Williams, who plays the show's title character.
Mark Hill

Interview highlights:

On the idea that "with great power comes great responsibility," for superheroes and for show creators:

I feel that the first responsibility I have is to my vision. Because if I stay true to that, all of the other things I should feel responsible for, or I am responsible for, will follow naturally. So, yes, you have a superhero. Especially an African-American male. And he's got two daughters that are going to have super powers. And they're young black women. One is a lesbian. That's a lot of responsibility in that. But ultimately you feel a responsibility to the people that you're telling stories to.  You want to respect and entertain them. You want them to see themselves. 

On the inspiration behind a "driving while black" scene in the pilot episode:

Jefferson Pierce is a black man. And I don't care how educated you are, how much money you have, what your status, or who your friends are, when an officer decides to pull you over, you're just a n----- in a car, plain and simple. And you have a choice: You can put on the mask —black men and women have a mask that they have to put on in those situations. But particularly in that situation, you sit up a little straighter and you try to be as docile and as unthreatening as possible.

That particular scene came out of me being pulled over on Main Street in Santa Monica. I'd been pulled over several times. And one night I got pulled over and I couldn't manage to put on the mask. And me and the officers started getting into an argument. And I could tell that they didn't appreciate what I had to say. And I damn sure didn't appreciate what they had to say, so it got to a stalemate. And I had to close my eyes for a moment and just ask myself, Okay, is this worth dying for? Is this worth getting beat down for? So I closed my eyes and I came back. And I just managed to get myself out of that situation. And what's strange about those situations is that you never get a ticket. You never get anything that says it even happened. So either you're going to die, get arrested, or they're going to let you go. But, either way, it's their word against yours. 

On balancing real issues with superhero fantasy:

It is a balance. As real as I want it to feel, I also want to entertain. I want you to have fun. So what I try to do is use humor and use music to indicate things. You know, using Billy Paul's "Am I Black Enough for You?" when he's fighting ... [also music by] Jack White, Nina Simone. I just try to entertain on all levels, and so there is humor in the show as well. I mean, it's a drama. But our humor, you know, is — I guess they call it dark, no pun intended. But yeah, It's a balance. You do it from show-to-show, you do it from script-to-script and story-to-story. 

On the show's discussion of the differing views of blackness and inclusion of a character with albinism:

I know people who talk like [Tobias, the gang boss with albinism]. And I think it's important we know that those people are out there. You know, we're about one generation up out of Jim Crow, and there's a lot of self-hate as a result. There are certain things that we say in our communities to each other that are the result of years and years of psychological abuse. And I didn't want to ignore it. It just seemed very natural to have it in — especially with Tobias because he's an African American man who has albinism. And as we get to know him, he's always felt out of place. He's not black, he's not white. I wanted to create a character that had suffered from that so that we could examine it and look at it and be honest about it. 

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