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How ‘Black Lightning’ director Salim Akil co-created the show and why

The buzzy ‘Black Lightning’ is a reflection of director Salim Akil’s family values

Audiences have of course always loved a good hero, but with projects such as Netflix’s Luke Cage and Disney’s Black Panther garnering ratings, massive hype and viral hashtags such as #BlackPantherSoLit, black superheroes are enjoying a true renaissance on screen. On May 17, The CW Network rolled out the first trailer for its new show Black Lightning, and once again it was clear from the response on social media that fans can’t wait to see DC Comics’ first African-American hero on TV. By midnight Thursday, the trailer had more than 392,000 views.

Introduced as a comic in 1977, Black Lightning follows Jefferson Pierce, a former Olympian turned principal in the “Suicide Slum” section of the fictional city of Metropolis. Though he was born a metahuman and has several superhuman abilities, Pierce suppresses his powers in a bid to keep his family safe. When his neighborhood is overrun by crime, however, Pierce begins to embrace his destiny to help clean up the streets and protect those he loves most. The show, which has no exact premiere date, stars Cress Williams (Prison Break, Hart of Dixie, Living Single), China Anne McClain (House of Payne, NCIS, Descendants 2) and Nafessa Williams (Code Black, Twin Peaks, Burning Sands).

While studios continuously mine their archives for profitable content, the driving forces behind Black Lightning are Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the husband-and-wife team responsible for such hits as The CW and BET’s The Game, The CW’s Girlfriends and BET’s Being Mary Jane. After leaving BET and signing a development deal with Warner Bros. in 2015, the Akils took a year off to search for their next project. During a meeting with Peter Roth, the studio’s president and chief content officer, Salim Akil floated the idea of adapting one of Milestone Media’s comics for the screen. While that didn’t pan out, Roth proposed a different idea: Black Lightning.

“I was somewhat familiar with Black Lightning, so I played it cool — but I wanted to jump out of the chair.”

“They said, ‘We had this thing we were holding for you guys called Black Lightning,’ ” Salim Akil said in February at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. “I was somewhat familiar with Black Lightning, so I played it cool — but I wanted to jump out of the chair.”

The Akils were soon on board, but it wasn’t just the prospect of working on a comic that attracted them to the project. Salim Akil, the father of two boys, fell in love with the character. “I want to reintroduce the black male to television in a certain way,” he said. “What I loved about the character is that he’s married and he has two daughters and is connected to the community. That was right up my alley. That gave me the opportunity to go hard on some of the things I wanted to talk about.”

The dedicated family man continued, “To me, the most amazing aspect of [the story] is that he’s a principal, and a father, and he’s a man who’s in love with his wife. They’re separated, but the only reason they’re separated is because of his powers and the way his powers affect him as a man.”

Although Salim Akil rarely participates in interviews, the director penned an open letter to his 12-year-old son on The Hollywood Reporter after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. In the letter, he reflected on the burden that black people, and in particular black men, face in society. While he took America to task for its “unquenched desire to control [black people],” which “began hundreds of years ago when your relatives were brought here across the Middle Passage to be sold,” Salim Akil also gave his son some defiant and valuable advice.

“If you’re trying to dumb … down to be acceptable, then you’ve dismissed and let go of your power.”

“You were made black on purpose,” he explained, echoing his production company’s motto. “God did that, so I want you to dance in the end zone, dunk the ball with beautiful creativity, become a police officer or a fireman, celebrate when you pass the bar exam, finish your medical residency, ride with your top down and play your music loud, wear your pants low on your hips or tie your neck up with a Windsor knot, find a woman like Diamond Reynolds and marry her quick. What I’m asking you to do, son, is after the tears dry, live. Live life ‘by any means necessary!’ ”

The letter also mirrors Salim Akil’s advice to black creatives in Hollywood.

“The perception is that if you’re too black, you’re not going to make it, but that perception is there so you don’t claim what is viable in the world,” he said on that February evening. “I think it’s time to claim the idea that when you go into these rooms, the expertise is you. If you’re trying to dumb that down to be acceptable, then you’ve dismissed and let go of your power.”

With Mara and Salim Akil at the helm of Black Lightning, it looks like audiences are in for a smart, unapologetically black hero who is perfect for these arduous times.

Britni Danielle is a Los Angeles based writer and editor who regularly explores the intersections of race, gender and pop culture.