Nafessa Williams Plays TV’s First Black Lesbian Superhero

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When Nafessa Williams’ agent set her up to audition for the new CW network show “Black Lightning,” she had no idea who Black Lightning was, or even that it was going to be a superhero show—much less that she was auditioning to play a lesbian. 

In fact, when the CW first announced that it was adding “Black Lightning” to its roster, reaction was, at best, muted. Black Lightning was an obscure character created in the 1970’s who has had an at-best modest career in the comics since then. Besides, “Black Lightning” was just another superhero show amongst a plethora of new superhero shows that have been crowding the schedules of many networks.

Williams ended up being cast as Anissa Pierce, the eldest of two super-powered daughters of Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning. Once she was cast and she started doing her homework about the characters’ history, Williams caught fire. 

“I got excited,” she said. “This was something different and special. Here was this black superhero whose focus was on his neighborhood, his community—and his family. I knew what it would mean to the community to see a portrayal of a strong black man who was present for his family, who was supportive and protective and loving.”

Upon its premier, “Black Lightning” proved to be a surprise hit, certainly by CW standards. In addition to performing well in the ratings, the show has garnered substantially positive critical praise. This came as no surprise to Williams. 

“I saw the scripts, which were incredible,” she said. “I knew who was involved running the show. I could tell that the quality would be on point.”

The show, now in the midst of its second season, has chronicled the evolution of Anissa Pierce, from her discovery of her powers, through her development as the costumed superhero code-named Thunder, who sometimes works with her father, but who also sometimes goes off and works independently—much to her protective father’s chagrin.

The show also casually, yet forthrightly, chronicles Anissa’s private life as an out-and-proud gay woman with an active romantic life. Not only is Williams okay with portraying a lesbian, she’s excited at the chance to make a positive impression. 

“I’m so excited to be playing a lesbian,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to help normalize being a lesbian in people’s eyes.”

She takes her position as a symbol for the community very seriously. 

“I consider it my responsibility to tell the story of where Anissa is coming from, as a woman of color, as a lesbian, from as authentic a place as I can,” she said. “I know the show-runners feel the same.” 

The show’s emphasis on protecting one’s community is an important factor that sets “Black Lightning” apart from most other TV superhero shows. “It’s important for people to be reminded that community is something worth fighting for.”

“Black Lightning” has wrapped filming on the current season, and Williams right now is on location filming a movie in New Orleans. She is immensely enjoying her time in the once-ravaged city. “New Orleans is an incredibly cool city. The city’s allure, the food—it’s terrific. I know certain sections of the city are still recovering from Katrina, even after all this time. But the way the city as a whole has bounced back is inspiring.”

Williams’ burgeoning career in television, and now in movies, has left her with precious little time to devote to charitable efforts she had once been involved with. She was once involved with some friends in a YouTube channel called “VIP Happy Hour,” which was meant to inspire women to take control of their lives and forge their own destinies. Sadly, she no longer has the time to be involved.

Williams does maintain a connection with the the Beatrice Foundation, a charity that feeds the homeless on Los Angelas’ Skid Row. “I lovethe Beatrice Foundation. The work they do is so important, so gratifying. I just wish I had more time to give to them.”        

For the future, Williams is looking forward to what’s in store, both romantically and heroically, for Anissa/Thunder. In the past, there have been regular crossovers with the heroes of the various CW superhero shows, which include “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “DC’s Legends.” So far, “Black Lightning” has not been involved with these crossovers.           

But Nafessa has hopes. “I’d love to go off on an adventure with the other girl heroes like Supergirl and Black Canary,” she said. “The future is female!”          

“Black Lightning” is broadcast on the CW on Monday nights at 9 p.m. The current season wraps up on March 4, but the show is available for streaming on Netflix. The show has been renewed by the CW for a third season.