Nafessa Williams, TV's first black lesbian superhero, talks 'Black Lightning' Season 2

Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce in <em>Black Lightning</em>. (Photo: Mark Hill/The CW ©2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.)
Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce in Black Lightning. (Photo: Mark Hill/The CW ©2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.)

The critically acclaimed CW hit show Black Lightning is back this week for its highly anticipated second season. The series, which showcases the first black superhero family on network television, stars Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce, an out and proud lesbian with a close-knit family that supports her. Anissa is a social justice activist and a medical student by day and a superhero known as Thunder by night. Bold and gutsy, the series shows her coming to terms with her new powers, always ready for a fight. This is a superhero series that tackles race head-on: Anissa’s superhero father, Black Lightning (Cress Williams), is known to quote Martin Luther King Jr. when in combat, and Williams herself has compared Thunder’s mentality to that of Malcolm X. As James Poniewozik wrote about Season 1 in the New York Times, “‘Black Lightning’ is immersively, not incidentally, black.”

This element of the show is fresh and brings something much needed to the superhero genre by directly speaking to our current political climate. Black Lightning addresses police brutality, gang violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The show has not only been hailed by critics but also garnered a loyal fan base, especially within the LGBTQ community, which has applauded the relationship of two strong women of color, Anissa and her girlfriend, Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy).

In real life, Nafessa Williams shares Anissa’s confidence and bravery. After college, with plans to become a lawyer, Williams worked in the homicide unit of the district attorney’s office until she realized that she was unhappy and decided to move from West Philadelphia to Los Angeles (like her idol Will Smith) in pursuit of an acting career. Not stopping there, she sought out Smith’s acting coach, studied with him for four years, and honed her craft before ultimately landing her first big role in 2011.

Nafessa Williams, photographed by DeWayne Rogers. (Photo: DeWayne Rogers/The CW)
Nafessa Williams, photographed by DeWayne Rogers. (Photo: DeWayne Rogers/The CW)

Yahoo Lifestyle spoke with Williams during her busy shooting schedule about Black Lightning, success, and superheroes.

Yahoo Lifestyle: Season 1 of Black Lightning was an overnight success. What can fans expect in terms of the evolution of Anissa as an activist and as a superhero in Season 2?

Nafessa Williams: Anissa is definitely taking it to the next level; she now understands her powers, she feels confident navigating the superhero world without her father, and she feels fully confident and able to do it on her own. I think Season 1 was a little more of her development and just trying to understand, “OK, as a superhero, how does this work? How do I develop my skills? How do I get the best training?” So she’s really figured all of that out, and she’s really able to get out and save her people on a whole other level.

This is inherently a political show. Will the current real-life political climate be reflected in the new season?

We tend to really stay on topic and relevant as to what’s going on in our country, our inner cities, and communities. We will definitely mirror what is actually happening in our ever-changing political climate. That’s one of my favorite things about this show.

Do you find that a lot of young lesbians reach out in support of your character, who is unapologetically out and fully supported by her family?

We started doing comic conventions once we wrapped. We did ClexaCon (a multi-fandom event for LGBTQ women and allies celebrating LGBTQ women and characters in TV, film, comics, and books), and I had so many young women come up to me. There was this one young lesbian who was probably about 16 or 17 who came up to me in tears, and it made me cry! She told me, “I just want you to know that after seeing Thunder, I feel normal as a lesbian.”

This is the most rewarding experience ever, taking on the role of Thunder as an actress. I’m just grateful and honored to give my voice to Thunder because she’s so bold. I think not just young black women but young women all over need to see a young woman who is unapologetically bold and herself — she is who she is and she’s really gung-ho on being herself. To me, that’s been the greatest reward, knowing I’m here being a representation, being the voice for multiple groups of women. I didn’t have a brown-skinned superhero growing up who wore cornrows and who reflected the inner city where I come from in Philadelphia. It’s been an honor to play her.

Nafessa Williams as Thunder in <em>Black Lightning</em>. (Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW ©2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.)
Nafessa Williams as Thunder in Black Lightning. (Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW ©2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.)

You’ve said you’d be excited to see more of a focus on Thunder’s love life in the next season. What can we expect regarding her romantic relationships in Season 2?

I am hoping to see more of her love life this season. We just started filming and I don’t get the scripts too far ahead of time, but before she was really focused on the development of her powers and she really didn’t have much time for a love life.

As a teenager, how were your experiences similar or dissimilar to Thunder’s unapologetic outlook on life?

I definitely think we share some similar qualities. Just being really bold — I always knew what I wanted in life and was very determined. Even when it came to being an actress: Everyone said to me, you have a college degree; why do you want to be an actress? So few people make it as actresses. But I followed my dreams and went to Hollywood. My mom was like, “Wait a minute — I thought you were going to be a lawyer.” I said, “You know what, Mom? You’re going to have to see me play one on TV.”

In what ways could you compare Thunder’s process of self-discovery, with respect to her superhero powers, with that of young LGBTQ people trying to hide or slowly reveal and understand who they are?

I try to understand what Thunder’s journey was, coming out as a lesbian at 16. We don’t show it on the show, but that’s about how long she’s been out. We see her on this journey of figuring out she has powers and figuring out if she shares them with anyone and how will they make people feel. I like to think it’s somewhat similar to the journey of a young lesbian coming out to her family and friends. It’s about owning who you are and finding those people who you can talk to, and who you can trust who would be a good listening ear.

On the show, we don’t make a big deal out of Anissa being a lesbian; it’s just this is who she is, and we accept and love her. There’s no big reveal, like ‘Let’s stop and talk about this.’ I hope that that dynamic of support inspires families and parents to support their children the same way, because it’s really beautiful.

Black Lightning returns to the CW on Oct. 9 at 9 p.m.

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