The superhero world is changing, and the CW’s Black Lightning — one of the few television shows to feature a black superhero — is answering the call for more representation in the fantastical.
Philadelphia native Nafessa Williams, 28, is one of the three leads in Black Lightning, which airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on the CW. The first season wraps April 17, and the show has been renewed for a second season.
Williams plays Anissa Pierce, TV’s first black queer superhero. Anissa’s father, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), has hung up his superhero uniform after years of an action-packed life. In medical school, Anissa learns of her super-abilities, and her father is forced back into action.
“The show is more so about a family wanting to save their community, as opposed to just a superhero show, and that’s what really drew me to the role,” said Williams. “[Anissa Pierce] is super-strong. She’s unapologetic. She’s a lesbian, which is something that I’ve never played before. So it was something new and challenging for me to step into, outside of myself. It’s also remembering that at the root of Anissa, there is love. And I know what love is. So when building this character, I stayed true to that.”
Williams grew up in West Philadelphia, dreaming of being a lawyer. She studied criminal justice at West Chester University and landed an internship in the homicide unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. It didn’t take long for Williams to realize she wasn’t following her true passion: acting.
Before Black Lightning, Williams had supporting roles in Showtime’s Twin Peaks, Netflix’s Burning Sands, and Lifetime’s Whitney, a Whitney Houston biopic that was Angela Bassett’s directorial debut. That was Williams’ first time being directed by a woman, and a black woman, at that.
“I’ll never forget the way [Bassett] embraced me,” she said. “I remember saying, ‘You have no idea how grateful I am to be here with you,’ and she said, ‘I do have an idea because I am you,’ and I teared up because that moment was so huge for me.”
For Williams, playing a superhero who is black and a lesbian presented a unique opportunity. She was intrigued by the script and began to read everything she could get her hands on about Black Lightning, originally a comic book series.
Williams knew it would be challenging to morph into a character imbued with such responsibility and dignity. Overwhelmed at the sight of herself in her costume, she was moved to tears. Tears of humility. Tears of awareness. Tears of utter gratitude.
“I cried the first time I put the costume on. [It’s] just one of those moments that I’ll never forget. I’m living my dream, playing a superhero on TV, and there are little girls, little brown girls, that will be looking up to me and this character that I’m responsible for. I was just so grateful that God chose me to give voice to this character. It was really emotional … and I look good in yellow!”
Beyond the fun costumes and stunts, Williams appreciated the underpinning of Black Lightning, which includes nods to such social issues as gun violence and police brutality. Although Williams may not be able to dodge bullets in real life, she and Anissa are alike in their boldness and determination.
Williams credits her decisive nature to her mother and other strong celebrated women, like Philadelphian Jill Scott, who plays the villainous Lady Eve on Black Lighting. The two haven’t shot any scenes together yet, but they did get a chance to catch up on the set.
“When I heard she was coming to the show, I was very excited. We met in the trailer and she shared her vegan Buffalo wings with me. I love food. So if you share food with me, we are friends forever,” Williams said. “We had a very ‘Philly’ moment, and she told me she could hear Philly in the way I talk.”
Williams firmly believes the key to moving forward in any aspect of life is self-love and self-acceptance.
“The best way to love yourself is to be kind to yourself and just embrace who you are. Natural beauty has seemed to fade, and I want to help be responsible for bringing that back. I just want people to know that we’re beautiful regardless of what our hair looks like, or what our skin tone is. That melanin is so amazing. And that’s what these little girls need to hear.”