‘Black Lightning’ Boss Salim Akil on Race and Facing a “Diseased System”

     January 17, 2018

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A few weeks ago on the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta, showrunner Salim Akil sat down with reporters to talk about his new series. Since we had been able to preview the first two episodes, there were a lot of specific questions about choices that were made, and Akil’s influences when it came to creating this TV iteration of the character. You’ll know from my review of those episodes that I am extremely excited about the series and where it could go from here. It comes out of the gate as a smart, mature show that has something to say. And from the start, Akil knew what that was going to be.

“The first scene in my head was him being pulled over by the police,” he told us “The reason [the city] is called Freeland and not [my city of] Richmond is because people still live there and they like their neighborhood, and I didn’t want people to feel like they were being put upon. But a lot of what we’re talking about on the show is stuff I’ve experienced. One of the first things that popped in my head was this guy who has powers being pulled over by police and not wanting to succumb to what his wife says is a drug.”

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Image via The CW

Race is woven into the very fabric of the show, as Akil addressed by saying, “One of the interesting things about the character, that he says on the show, is that he didn’t name himself Black Lightning. He doesn’t necessarily like that name. It’s something that was given to him, and he says later on in the show ‘Why can’t they just call me Lightning? Why do they have to include “black” with it?’ So we get to talk about those things.”

One of the things that makes Black Lightning really stand out is that it has something to say, and knows how to say it. A question the show will explore this season is the tension between a Martin Luther King, Jr. way of doing things vs Malcolm X. “It’s a debate that’s going on inside of me constantly,” Akil shared. “And now that I have younger boys I’m still having that debate because I want them to be able to proactively protect themselves in the world but, I know and understand the result of violence, extreme violence, in my own life, and in my friends’ lives, so I know what violence really is.” He continued,

“I’ve held people who are shot and I know what a gunshot looks like, and what dead people look like on the street, so if you were to ask me about violence I would say that it never leads anywhere. But in a certain way violence leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom and got there without a certain degree of violence. […] In Episode 3 you hear Henderson speak to that. He’s talking to a reverend and he says “While you’re in the pulpit with a $25k watch on and wiping your head with a silk scarf, I’m in the street scraping young black men’s bodies off the ground, and that’s my pulpit.” For me it’s always sort of trying to taking these conversations and have them in an honest way. As I’ve grown older, now I have police officers for friends, but not when I was young. So it was just a little shout to the complexity of this world and this life we live in. […] People have always said that no matter what happens it’s not the time to talk about but … I’m going to talk about it.”

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Image via The CW

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