Cress Williams began to see his acting career taking off in the early 1990s, when Hollywood wasn’t taking superhero comic books nearly as seriously as it does today.
When that attitude started changing at the turn of the century, and heroes on the big screen and eventually on TV became big business, the 47-year-old always held out hope he’d get his chance to be one.
But with only so many black superheroes in mainstream comics out there to turn into live-action adaptations, Williams became convinced that he had aged out of the possibility of being a superhero.
He watched as the few significant roles of black superheroes were “getting peeled away,” as he put it: Mike Colter became Luke Cage for Marvel/Netflix. Chadwick Boseman was cast as the Black Panther over at Marvel Studios. Williams figured maybe it was time to stop thinking super.
“I wanted to be a part of it so bad,” Williams told The Post’s Comic Riffs while in Washington for the DC Comics event “DC in D.C.” on Saturday. “I was getting up in age. I just thought, maybe this is a dream that just won’t be realized. And then [Black Lightning] came along, and not only is it fulfilling this dream of what I wanted, but it’s more than that. It’s telling a story that’s even more important in a package that’s even more [socially conscious] than I could have ever hoped for.”
Williams describes “Black Lightning” as a show with superpowers that doesn’t shy away from social issues in the African American community.
“I’m glad that we’ve evolved in the superhero genre to get to this point. To get to ask those human questions, to ask those social questions,” Williams said. “And as an actor you want to leave a legacy that entertains, of course, you want to make a living, of course, but you want to leave something behind that means something and that’s impactful. Those types of projects are few and far between, so to have it all into one package [with ‘Black Lightning’] is just a blessing.”
In his role as Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning’s alter ego), Williams says he and the husband-and-wife producing team of Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil are aiming for “a quest for balance” in mixing the social message with a masked hero saving the day.
The Black Lightning of the present day, a school principal in the city of Freeland, is not the same vigilante he was in his younger days.
“I think Jefferson, when he was the young Black Lightning, he was almost like a Malcolm X, and his wife said ‘no more’ and he became Martin [Luther King] for nine years,” Williams said. “It really takes both. First resort is nonviolence, but then at some point there needs to be a by-any-means mentality. That’s the journey that we’re going to be on.”
Williams didn’t have to stress over the superhero-role requirement to bring muscle to the role. Weightlifting became a consistent part of his life when he hit 40.
“The funny thing is you kind of get addicted to working out,” Williams said. “When we’re in our normal shooting schedule, I have very little time to work out. So that’s the challenge, because it’s something I actually enjoy doing. It’s kind of my peace.”
“Black Lightning” joins the CW’s growing list of DC Comics-inspired shows, which includes “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Legends of Tomorrow” and “Supergirl.” Those shows participate in a crossover each year that Williams says isn’t a part of “Black Lightning’s” plans, partly because of logistics. “Black Lightning” films in Atlanta, and all the other CW/DC shows film in Vancouver.
“I can see [a crossover] down the line once we’ve hit our stride and really have developed,” Williams said. “What I’d like, if we did a crossover, is for them to cross over into our world as opposed to us crossing over into their world.”
Williams expressed gratitude when asked what it meant for him to debut “Black Lightning” in Washington during “DC in D.C.,” an event that ended with an after-party at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I’m ecstatic. It’s perfect. Whoever planned [“DC in D.C.”] was a genius. Here we are [in Washington] on Martin Luther King weekend. That we can have the premiere here, DC in D.C., all of it is just this perfect convergence. You couldn’t have a better situation. I’m overwhelmed with emotion.”