On January 12-13, DC Comics and Warner Bros. TV came to Washington D.C. to hold the first ever “DC in DC” event. The event had panels dealing with topics such as representation, race, mental health and more. It was held over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend to help promote the release of “Black Lightning”, the first African-American superhero star in his own prime-time network show. I attended with Ben, TBU’s intern.
We began the morning of January 13 at Newseum where we spoke with “Black Lightning” star Cress Williams. When asked about being a superhero he said, “It’s a dream come true. I’ve always been a superhero fan. I use to set my alarm to get up and watch….dating myself…the Super Friends back in the day”. He also confessed to watching Cartoon Network’s “Justice League” in the 2000’s. “I use to record that”, he said. “All these things have informed who I am. I wanted to play a superhero so bad, so this is like a dream come true”, Cress added.
I made a note to Cress that unlike other CW leads, he’ll be a superhero raising teenage daughters. Cress elaborated on my point and said, “It’s a huge part of it. Jeff’s family in general is a huge part of it. Jefferson as a father and…I guess kind of a husband.”
“Kind of”, I confusingly interrupted him.
“They’re divorced but they co-parent very well. There’s a lot of love in their relationship. They want to get back together. That’s like an anchor point for the show. It’s going to continue to develop more and more as the daughters continue to come into their own,” Cress explained.
“I also hope that it sparks an appetite for diversity. That is sparks an appetite to have a show about an Asian superhero or a show about the Blue Beetle. I hope that it sparks a movement that creates diversity and where everybody can look and see themselves represented,” Cress added.
When asked about the importance of the DC in DC 2018 event, Cress said, “It’s phenomenal. When we were at San Diego Comic-Con in July they told me “we’re thinking about doing this at this time of year,” to be quite honest I cried because of the impact and that I get to be a part of that. I just felt so privileged. It’s just a wonderful convergence of time. It’s MLK weekend. To have it here. You can’t market anything better than DC in DC.”
Ben asked Cress if Jefferson would accept his onscreen daughter following his superhero footsteps or try to drive her away for protection. “It’s a little bit of both. When she starts to develop powers I can tell you that it’s a combination for me of pride cause it’s like ‘wow my daughter has a part of me in her’ but there’s also a fear because obviously I don’t want her to get hurt. I don’t want her to see the things and lose the things that I’ve lost”, Cress said.
We also spoke with “Black Lightning” show runners Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil. “It feels needed. Creating conversations. Creating understanding. I think that’s the best thing that television really offers us if you use it as a platform to get to know each other. The genre lets us do it in a fun way,” Mara said about the show.
“Day one of our deal at Warner Bros, this was one the table from the beginning”, Mara added.
The showrunners put on their best poker faces and Salim said “hang in there” when one of the reporters suggested that Virgil/Static Shock should appear or get his own show.
I asked the show runners why they were straying from the formula and skipping the origin story. “Because everyone else had done origin stories and I just wanted to take a different approach. It’s a rebirth story, a resurrection story. People are fascinated with the resurrection and so am I,” said Salim.
Ben asked how they would deal with the origin for more entry level fans. “We do want to show the origin story. It’s just how. I’ll give you a little scoop that you may see it in the last episode,” Salim said. He then pointed to Ben and said “That’s for you.” “You get little hints. There’s little nuggets throughout the season to kind of give you puzzle pieces. They’re not linear, they’re not fitted together for you,” Mara added.
That night was the much anticipated screening of the Black Lightning pilot. Like our morning press sessions, it was also held at the Newseum. People lined up outside the doors in the cold weather hours in advance. Nobody wanted to miss it. I had noted that in the weeks prior to the event, the Eventbrite tickets had sold out during their first run. Eventually a second set of tickets had been released, but those too were eventually depleted. The demand was huge. The Newseum provided complimentary popcorn, candy and drinks. Ben and I took our seats for the pilot and for the next forty minutes we were solidly entertained. We are going to be mostly spoiler free in this review, so those concerned about such things can continue reading.
Appropriately, the episode is titled “The Resurrection”, which plays into what Salim Akil told us earlier. I’m not certain how the rest of the season will play out, but judging by the pilot, Black Lightning is a very grounded show. Jefferson Pierce does not fight aliens or super powered beings. He goes up against street level gang chaos, racial tensions, teenage rebellion and dilemmas of co-parenting with an ex-spouse. The show deals with modern day race relations in a non-condescending way. Near the beginning of the episode, Jefferson has an uncomfortable encounter with a police officer that may ring very true to any African-Americans watching.
Because the audience immediately feels empathy towards Jefferson, it helps viewers understand some of the experiences that minorities go through which others may not give a second thought to. You feel angry for Jefferson. You want things to be different. I turned to look at Ben, who is only eleven years old. I explained to him that the experience Jefferson had was a very real thing that many people go through on a daily basis. I’m glad that the show can be a learning experience for him and I hope it is for other young people as well.
The show does not try portray all cops as evil. Like real life, things are a lot more nuanced than that. Damon Gupton, an African-American actor, plays the traditionally white Inspector Henderson. He doesn’t have much to do in the pilot, so it remains to be seen how he’ll be utilized.
The family aspect of the show was my favorite. Cress Williams plays a Jefferson Pierce who is devoted to his daughters but faces the impossible task of trying to protect a teenage girl who doesn’t always make the best choices. There are many fathers out there who can relate to that struggle. China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams play Jennifer and Anissa respectively. The sister relationship was not something I was expecting but it turned out to be one of the nice surprises of the series. Anissa is more of a second mother to the trouble-seeking Jennifer than she is a sister. I’m also amused that Jennifer has her sister as a teacher and father as a principal. That’s enough to make any teen want to rebel!
Marvin “Krondon” Jones III steals every scene he’s in as Tobias Whale. He’s just the right balance of calm, crazy and scary. The rest of the cast was utilized well. James Remar plays Peter Gambi, a name that will be familiar to comic readers. He’s a much more low tech version of Sisco Ramon from “The Flash”, but older and wiser.
Christine Adams plays Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn. In keeping with the family aspect of the show, we see a positive co-parenting relationship between ex-spouses. We don’t get any of the angry exes tropes that are usually found on television. Adams does a great job as Lynn, especially in the flashbacks where we see the effect Jefferson’s superhero life ultimately had on their doomed marriage.
Once the episode ended, I was left with a feeling of wanting more. I hadn’t realized we were so close to the end and I wanted the episode to continue so I can see how the plot threads played out. I don’t mean this as a bad thing. Any good television pilot should leave you wanting to watch episode two. The audience had positive reactions. There were cheers during heroic moments and gasps during the shocking ones. All in all, Black Lightning is a promising new addition to the TV superhero genre that explores new angles and strays from the usual formula.
Once the screening was over, Ben and I rendezvoused with our Warner Bros contact to board a shuttle with a group of other journalists. We were then transported to National Museum of African American History and Culture for the Black Lightning premiere party. Upon entering the Museum, we were amazed to see that it had been decorated with images from DC Comics TV shows.
The lounge area also had plenty of DC trade paperbacks for our reading pleasure.
Throughout the night we enjoyed the live band, open bar and a buffet of great food. The rest of museum was open to explore. It was quite an experience looking at exhibits about African American culture and running into David Mazouz (Bruce Wayne on “Gotham”). Ben and I ran into Sean Pertwee (Alfred on “Gotham”) who was still recovering from watching the “Black Lightning” pilot. “I had no idea it was going to be so good,” Sean said. He was very taken in by the story. “It’s almost as good as Gotham”, he joked. The three of us chatted about the show and how we couldn’t wait to see what comes next.
We caught up with Marvin “Krondon” Jones III who portrays Tobias Whale. We told him that he did a great job in the pilot, but that if we saw a harpoon we’d be backing away from him. When you see the episode you’ll understand why.
Ben and I caught up with Cress Williams and congratulated him on finally being able to enjoy the release of the pilot. He was in good spirits and happy to see the show was being so well received. Warner Bros supplied gift bags for the party attendees which included a Black Lightning comic. Cress was more than happy to sign Ben’s comic.
Here are some other fun moments from the party…
The screening and premiere party were great ways to end the “DC in DC 2018” event. I couldn’t imagine a better way to launch Black Lightning. I would highly recommend catching the pilot when it airs tonight.
Black Lightning airs on Tuesday at 9PM ET on the CW beginning tonight.