An interview with Nafessa Williams.
The war on black Americans is real. The extrajudicial killing of black men and women by police has become disturbingly commonplace. So, too, are the instances of white people calling the police on black people who are doing ordinary things: barbequing at a local picnic ground; sitting in a Starbucks waiting for friends; turning in coupons at a supermarket or drugstore; or, if they are black women students, hanging out on their majority-white college campuses, like Smith, eating lunch or studying in a quiet corner.
Black Lightning is fighting back against all of that—to critical and audience raves.
The CW’s latest superhero drama is part of out gay showrunner Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse, a compendium of series based on DC Comics. Black Lightning was developed by Salim Akil and combines Afro-futurism with black American life for a vivid, honest, and utterly compelling TV series. At the heart of the story is the Pierce family. Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams) is a teacher and the older daughter of beloved school principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams, no relation to Nafessa), who is also the eponymous superhero, Black Lightning.
Anissa’s younger sister, Jennifer (China Anne McClain), is a high school student and the superhero Lightning. Annisa is the superhero Thunder. Anissa is also a lesbian. The first black lesbian superhero on TV. The crime-fighting trio is focused on controlling corruption and stopping the dangerous influence of a local gang, which is engaged in everything from drugs to sex trafficking.
Curve caught up with Nafessa Williams on a broiling-hot August afternoon in Philadelphia, the city where she grew up, to talk about what it’s like to inhabit this groundbreaking new role. Williams was warm, engaging, and eager to talk about playing America’s first black lesbian superhero in a year in which black superheroes have been breaking box office and ratings records and spawning a whole new category at the Oscars.
At 28, Williams has already co-starred on two soaps, The Bold and the Beautiful and One Life to Live, as well as two prime-time series, Showtime’s reboot of Twin Peaks and CBS’s Code Black, and has appeared in nearly a dozen films. But Williams’s role in Black Lightning isn’t like anything else she’s done—–nor is it like anything else we’ve seen on TV.
“I got an audition about this superhero,” she explains, “and I fell in love with the strong, bold characters.”
Williams says it was always on her “dream vision board” to work with both show creator Salim Akil and co-executive producer Mara Akil, whose work she’s long admired for their relatable characters and strong story lines. “I knew I could trust what they would give us. I knew the characters would be authentic.”
She read for the part with Cress Williams—“I’m honored to be playing his daughter and to be working with him, he’s awesome to work with”—and everything just synched. There’s nothing jaded about Williams—she’s not one of those actors. That she is thrilled to be playing Anissa / Thunder is apparent as she talks about all the aspects of working on the groundbreaking series. Williams also loves having the opportunity to model strength and realness for black girls and for the LGBT community.
“I didn’t have superheroes who looked like me when I was growing up,” Williams says. “We need to see superheroes with hair like ours and bodies like ours and skin like ours.”
Williams says she’s proud to portray a lesbian superhero and have the fact of her sexuality be an accepted aspect of who she is right from the show’s premiere. There’s no conflict over Anissa’s lesbianism—she’s already there, with a girlfriend, in bed, mostly naked, when the series opens. Anissa and her girlfriend Chenoa (Shein Mompremier) are kissing and joking with each other when things turn serious. Chenoa wants more. Anissa isn’t ready. What Chenoa doesn’t know is that Anissa is a superhero. It’s not something Anissa knows how to talk to herself about yet, let alone anyone else.
It’s lesbian drama with such verisimilitude that every lesbian watching will be nodding along. But Williams knows there’s more to that authenticity than just the scenes themselves.
“Being able to give a voice to LGBT youth—that’s important,” Williams asserts. “We need to see a black superhero who is a lesbian, who looks like us.”
Williams explains that Anissa has been out as a lesbian since she was a teenager, and that her parents accept it. “I hope parents of LGBT youth can be inspired to be like that, like Anissa’s parents. That they are open and accepting is so important, and I think Black Lightning is putting out a message of love with that. It wasn’t a big ordeal, there wasn’t a big coming-out moment. I hope that families of lesbian women will see that.”
Williams says she felt “it was my duty to tell that story.”
Anissa’s breakup with Chenoa is harsh; meeting Grace is sexy and exciting. The audience witnesses her love of and appreciation for women. For her part, Williams says playing a lesbian character has been quite different from her previous acting experiences. “I’ve always been opposite men” on screen, she says.
The familial bonds in the series matter to Williams, too, who says it’s “so important to witness strong black characters in a strong black family. Our series shows a strong black single father raising two daughters. We all love each other and take care of each other.”
In the series premiere, Jefferson is pulled over for driving while black and Anissa wants to challenge the police, but he tells her not to. The hyper-realism of the scene is as heart-pumping as any of the superhero moments. The audience knows that it could go many ways—some of them deadly.
Unlike many series, Black Lightning doesn’t use Anissa’s lesbianism as a trope—it’s genuine, just as it was in the DC Comics. Anissa’s relationships are blatantly sexual—there’s no pretense or fade-outs. The kissing, the emotion, the pillow talk—it’s relatable and believable. The first relationship didn’t work out, after Anissa discovered her superpowers. “e grew apart because Anissa couldn’t talk about who she really was.”
But then Anissa meets Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy), another superhero.
Williams hopes that season two will open up Anissa’s love life. “I want to see more of Grace, to see the show develop more of that relationship and Anissa’s love life. But she’s also learning about her powers, and that’s going to play a big role.” Once Anissa becomes Thunder, things change for her—and they did for Williams as well. Thunder wears an amazing neoprene suit that Williams explains takes about half an hour to get into. It’s a no-nonsense superhero outfit, of which Williams says, “It’s strong and I look ready for action, ready to kick ass. It’s not a dress. It’s not about being sexy, it’s about power. It’s tactical. Thunder is ready to take names.”
The experience of becoming that superhero when she first put on the outfit, though, Williams describes as “a moment. I cried the first time I put it on.”
The actor explains how it was “so emotional for me because I have never had a superhero who looked like me. I was so overwhelmed when I realized I was going to become that for little black girls. So yes—I cried.”
Williams’s deep relationship to her character comes through in many ways, both huge and subtle. In one scene, she’s buying lingerie and corrects the salesclerk who refers to the person she’ll be modeling it for as “he.” “She,” Anissa declares. In another scene she’s in her bed, hair pulled back, researching super powers on her laptop. She can be both flirt and nerd.
Williams says, “I love how bold my character is and how she walks in her truth. She’s this young character finding her way, discovering all her powers.”
Of Black Lightning she says the show has allowed Anissa / Thunder to be fully realized in all her facets—including her lesbianism. “We are not afraid to push the envelope.”
The role—and its heavy responsibility—has changed Williams, too. The impact of the series in both the black and the LGBT community has been enormous. Williams says, “As an actor, I am an activist. I feel like I am doing my part in sparking change. I found myself becoming an advocate for LGBT youth, especially.” Williams says she hopes that the way Anissa is comfortable with her lesbianism will resonate with young people watching the series.
If there’s a main message Williams wants to impart in her role as Anissa / Thunder, it is for people “to be their own superheroes. Teachers, nurses, artists, actors, students, whoever you are—walk in your truth. Follow your dreams fearlessly.That is our duty and purpose, to walk as boldly as Anissa does—she gets it done!”
Williams gets it done, too. Thunder is the black lesbian superhero we’ve needed and wanted and Nafessa Williams is walking boldly in that role—for all of us.