'Black Lightning' Showrunner Salim Akil Reflects on Season 1

This article contains spoilers.

Black Lightning Season 1 came to an end with episode 13, "Shadow of Death: The Book of War," which saw Jefferson, Lynn, Anissa, Jennifer and Gambi defeat Martin Proctor and eradicate the "Make America Great Again" campaign from Freeland. Working together, the Pierce family saved more than a dozen metahuman experimentation subjects, exposed the government's involvement in the distribution of Green Light and protected Alvin Pierce's heroic legacy. While we got a lot of answers, we'll have to wait until next year to sort out the show's numerous looming cliffhangers.

In the meantime, we caught up with Black Lightning co-creator Salim Akil to give some insight into what we should be thinking about until next season. Akil discusses the show's most surprising moments, why he chose to shed light on certain social issues, Jefferson and Lynn's functional co-parenting situation, the breakout performance of Marvin Jones III and what to expect in Black Lightning Season 2.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

salim akil black lightning season 1 finale interview
'Black Lightning' was created by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil. The DC character was created by Tony Isabella with Trevor Von Eeden. Randy Shropshire/Getty Images

What was the most difficult part of the creative process for you, whether it be creatively or emotionally, or a certain scene?

The idea of wanting to talk about social issues but not wanting to be dogmatic or preachy about them, or too earnest about them. That balance was something that was challenging. To keep it going over the course of a 13-episode season and not get people sort of like, "Oh my god, we have to talk about this again?" That was the challenge, to be entertaining but also wanting to talk about certain issues that were happening in the world today.

There certainly was an element of restraint. Do you think it's important to leave audiences with something to decide for themselves?

I approached it with the understanding that the audience is very intelligent and story savvy. I always approach storytelling with the idea that the audience will get it. They understand almost better than we do, because they get to watch it from an entirely different perspective with new eyes. Where we are living with it every day, they get to see it once a week and react to it. So from the first episode until the last, I wanted to really respect the audience and entertain them, but also understand they live in a very connected world, so they are aware of the things that are going on around them. We couldn't ignore those things.

Is it hard when the audience might miss a certain thing you left behind? Are there any details you wish people picked up on or paid more attention to?

No. I like the fun stuff. I like that when we mentioned Vixen and Supergirl everyone was wondering, "Oh, does this mean there will be a crossover?" I love introducing characters they may be familiar with, like Painkiller. I enjoy some of the criticisms, too. Somebody said something about Painkiller's hair when they first saw it. I was rolling. It really was funny. Those are the kinds of things we do to have fun. You either really like it or you're like, "That's a horrible looking wig." Those are some of the things that really make me smile when people are that engaged.

Black Lightning combines the history of experimentation on African Americans with the complexities of drugs adversely affecting communities of color. How did you weave these storylines together and why did you choose these two issues to explore?

They chose me. It's what's going on in our society. Whether you're dealing with gun violence and drugs in so-called inner cities, or you're dealing with gun violence and opioids in the rural areas or white areas of the country—that's what's going on. In terms of the experimentation, I just think there's a certain part of American history that is ignored. I didn't want to ignore it and I thought it was a good storyline. People took to it because they've heard about these things, read about these things, but it hasn't been fully explored in our culture and talked about in our culture. So I wanted to talk about it. Nobody else was talking about it. Some people feel like the Flint water crisis is just that as well. In the finale, a young lady says, "People are always calling Black people paranoid until the truth comes out."

Are there any themes or issues calling to you for next season?

The way that we've explored powers is that they are not all positive. They take from you. Now that Jefferson and Lynn have two daughters with powers, they know what it takes from your life and those young ladies are going to have to deal with some of that. You can't protect your children from life. That's really the stuff I want to get into. How does a family deal with all of this knowledge? Anissa really hasn't had an opportunity to know all that she can do because she jumped into the fight with her father very quickly. Jennifer, she's not really accepting of her powers, but she has them. How is that going to affect her? Lynn shot somebody in the [finale] episode. How does a doctor feel when you murder someone, even though it was in self defense? Interpersonal issues with the family are what I'm excited about getting into, and of course, we will continue the storylines we've set up.

What influenced the way you depict Lynn and Jefferson's relationship, with such a strong sense of intimacy?

There are so many families who do not come up in a traditional household. African Americans, Latins and I'm sure Whites as well, but there are a lot of men missing in African American communities and in Latin communities. A lot of them are in prison and a lot of them succumb to gun violence and drugs, or high degrees of unemployment and lack of education. We wind up in households that don't look like the so-called traditional household. I was trying to use Jefferson and Lynn to show that you can co-parent in a productive way, in a way that you do not have to be yelling at each other every moment of the day. You can still have a certain love and care for one another. I wanted to use them as an example that you can raise productive young women in society and not look like the traditional family.

There are a lot of untraditional TV moments in Black Lightning. One that sticks out is when Jennifer brings up sex at the dinner table. How did you approach that dialogue?

That is the way I talk to my children. I've never talked to my children with baby talk. I've told my son, "Hey, when you get ready to have sex come talk to me, so I can help you do it the right way to protect yourself and to make sure no one is harmed in the situation emotionally." That's probably not the approach that most parents take, but I find that if you try to conduct your life in a way that people have set for you, that typically your life does not go well because you are not living your life. So I have to live my life in the way that feels comfortable, natural and organic to me. I felt like that conversation should be the norm. I think we would have a lot less mothers or women or young girls having babies before they are ready if we did have those conversations. I'm trying to show a different way of approaching a subject that we put way too much negative emphasis on. It's almost like we don't want to talk about it, but clearly there are people out there having sex.

It was great to see a show be open about weed. Was that a hard conversation between you and the network?

The CW and Warner Bros have been very supportive of the vision. They trusted me and I always tried to adhere to their standards and practices, but there were moments where I needed to push a little bit. Some of the things that I wanted to do and say, I don't think that anybody had put them in a position to actually hear those words. When Tobias gave that whole run about thick-lipped, and used all these pejoratives on LaLa, that was challenging, because of course they didn't want to offend anyone. Sometimes you have to offend people to wake them up so they are paying attention and actually understand what we are trying to say.

Speaking of Tobias… Marvin Jones. Wow. Did you know from the first time he read he was going to knock it out of the park?

I knew Marvin was going to get the part. I'll be honest, I also knew that he didn't have that much experience as an actor. It was wonderful to see him grab this opportunity and just kill it. He is an amazing person, first of all, but as an actor, he just embodied the character and gave it every moment. He gives every moment everything he's got. I tell my children, some people can be more talented than you. Some people can be faster, stronger, but there is never a reason for anyone to outwork you. Nobody outworks Marvin. He's an amazing guy and an amazing actor. He's like a revelation. I feel blessed.

When "Tiimmy Turner" by Desiigner came on, I lost it. Why did you place that song?

It's funny because I had been wanting to use "Tiimmy Turner" at the beginning of the season. It just had this feel to it that just spoke to me on an instinctual level. I just put in music that I like. If it works, then it works. There's no real thought about it, other than what can speak to what we are watching? What can make the audience feel something? Earth Wind & Fire made you feel hopeful. Then when "Tiimmy Turner" comes on it's ominous, and repetitive, it's like, damn let me go. It grabs you and won't let you go until it's done. Emotionally, I try to go in and feel and not just throw something in there because it's popular.