The cast of Black Lightning—Marvin Jones III, China McClain, Christine Adams, and Nafessa Williams—is bad, bad, bad. And by bad, I mean awesome. Thoughtful. Radiant and beautiful—like literally blinding to the naked eye. And full of joy, fierce pride, spirituality, and strength when talking about being at the vanguard of diversity in superheroes, specifically, and science fiction, generally—a fact acknowledged by an audience brimming with palpable gratitude on Friday in the Marriott Atrium Ballroom, which the cast repaid by bringing a cosplaying fan on stage.
“It’s terrible,” McClain said as they entered, joking. “We hate each other.”
Actually, as fans learned during the panel, the cast are a close-knit group that hopes the Black Lightning ride last for at least seven seasons, with their characters growing not just as metahumans but as a family learning to be a team. They also reflected on their place in the larger Arrowverse, pop culture, and the fabric of Atlanta, where the show—which will air its second season in October—is filmed (at DeKalb School of the Arts, among other locations).
Williams started the panel by saying it would be cool to work with all the women of the Arrowverse. “They could kick-it with us.”
Adams followed that, speaking in her natural British accent, which caught the audience unaware. “Oh, I’m English, by the way,” she exclaimed.
McClain, originally a Disney star who is currently in their Descendants franchise as a villain, discussed the difference between the two worlds she now occupies. “Disney is great,” she said. “But, Disney ain’t Freeland, you know what I’m sayin’?” Yet, she is enjoying playing a good and bad character simultaneously. As for her Black Lightning alter ego—Jennifer—she’s excited to see her come into her own powers, which she will initially fight, and the possibility of her joining the Justice Society of America, after getting a “sick, sick suit” to aid her world-saving turn. For now, though, Jennifer “just wants to finish school, go to prom, college, meet a guy.”
On a more serious note, she talked about being a child actor, as the 20-year-old has been acting since 2005, in a “very adult industry,” citing God and her family for keeping her safe and grounded.
For Williams and McClain, the relationship with Adams, who plays their mother, was “instant” and “easy from the start” even though they never auditioned with her. Pointing at herself, Adams asked “How could you not love [this]?”
Though he doesn’t often act with them, Jones—who plays the villain Tobias Whale—calls her said that his sisters are an example on set of positivity and bring life to dialogue that “feels really real,” like actual parent/child interaction. Jones has not been acting long. He’s a musician and rapper that has ghostwritten for Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre, both of whom he praised for being generous in giving him credit for his work. Yet, he looms large as Tobias, who he called an atypical villain.
“Playing Tobias is hard in general ’cause I’m pulling from a place that is not me,” he said. To make it authentic and believable, he often goes “to those dark places” which is counter to his natural instinct to run toward the light. Which is why he’d probably like to see the character evolve into good, an idea he expressed. “I would hope,” he said, “I could come to dinner at the Pierce house.”
Williams discussed the responsibility—and honor—that comes with portraying the first black lesbian superhero, albeit one who is “exploring an adventurous love life” in the coming season. “It’s very rewarding to know I’ve become an advocate for the [LGQBT] community,” she said, going on to speak for everyone: “We all want to see characters like ourselves.” She’s also excited to see how her character, Anissa, blends her two worlds—medicine and crime fighting—and grows into a woman with a family of her own.
The group also expressed love for the people and culture of Atlanta, which has embraced the show just as the show as embraced the city. “I really like the trees, “Adams added, both jokingly and seriously, as a full-time Atlanta transplant awed by the huge, old timbers.
“I think the city itself represents Black Lightning,” Jones said.
As for the superhero they’d most like work with from that rival world—which they called “the M-word” (Marvel)—McClain loves Luke Cage, Williams said Jessica Jones, and Jones would want to work with Daredevil (and team with Damien Darhk in the Arrowverse). But it was Adams who, in talking about her Marvel dream collaboration, dropped a potential spoiler.
“What I heard is that they are going to make a spin-off of Black Panther,” Adams said, that would be on TV and focused on Shuri, the Wakandan King’s genius little sister. Hearing gasps, she said, “I honestly thought everyone knew that!” For herself, she’d like to see her character meet a tragic accident with toxic, power-inducing, chemicals that turns her into a supervillain. One that eventually gets her own spin-off.
“I’m not a serious person,” she said, though she did offer sage advice for aspiring actors. “Acting is a long game,” Adams pointed out. She, herself, has been acting for 20 years and has lost out on many “almost” roles. “Just be driven by the work. Love the work.”
Williams said to surround yourself with like-minded people and people you want to emulate and study. McClain echoed the sentiment to never give up, saying that there may be lots of “nos” but just one “yes” could change your life.
Jones talked about his own journey, not just in acting, but also in music, and how his Grandma’s support in his early years buoyed him and that the fruits he has now are her fruits too. “A delay from God,” he reminded the audience, “is not a denial from God.”
“When it comes to your dreams, don’t take no for an answer,” he said.
While none of the panel is a comic collector or reader, they did research the origin and early years of Black Lightning—‘70s afro and all—and appreciate the effort and art that has gone into retooling him for contemporary audiences and television. From the music choices that take on a life of their own to the mystery of what comes next and their castmates and guest stars (like the incredible Jill Scott), the cast of Black Lightning knows they have joined an amazing, and loved, world—and that they may be a part of a greater movement.