What Playing TV’s First Black Lesbian Superhero Means to ‘Black Lightning’ Star Nafessa Williams
This Black History Month, HelloGiggles’ In the Making is honoring the Black women working to make 2021 a better world—from an iconic actress who’s made massive strides for Black representation on-screen to a therapist whose organization works to promote the mental health of Black women everywhere. These women are true examples of history in the making, and we’re honored to share their incredible stories.
Even though she plays a powerful character on TV, Black Lightning star Nafessa Williams wasn’t a big fan of superheroes growing up. “The whole idea of powers behind being a superhero was always fascinating as a kid but I couldn’t relate to anyone. I didn’t see any that looked like me, whose hair, dress, and skin looked like mine,” the actress tells HelloGiggles over Zoom. Now, though, through her role as Anissa Pierce, AKA Thunder, on CW’s live action series, Williams is changing all of that. She’s making history as the first Black, lesbian superhero on television, so today’s young women of color, especially members of the queer community, can finally look to a strong, powerful superhero for inspiration.
“I think that’s our duty as artists and storytellers to connect with people, give them something authentic that they can relate to,” she says.
When Williams was offered the part in 2017, she immediately said yes. The actress had already been on multiple shows including One Life to Live, Code Black and more recently, Twin Peaks, but was looking for a boundary-pushing project. “I wanted a show that I was passionate about, that was going to help play a really important role in our culture, so when I saw this character it was a no brainer for me,” she says. “Once I found out that it was the first Black superhero family, I was like, ‘sign me up!'”
Since Black Lightning began airing, Thunder has become a role model for young women, with girls even sporting Thunder costumes on Halloween. Whenever Williams posts about the show on Instagram, fans comment on its impact on culture.
The reward is seeing how Brown women and girls relate to the character, whether it’s her hair, her attitude, her fearlessness, she says.
“I’m passionate about lending my voice to women, especially women who look like me and never saw themselves, and never saw lesbians on TV in a healthy, out relationship,” she continues, adding that on the show, “We really normalize the idea that her being a lesbian is OK, it’s just who she is.”
When she first read the script, Williams recalls, her first thought was, “I hope that parents are as accepting and approving of their lesbian daughters who come to them and come out.” After the first season aired, the star got a glimpse of the series’ impact on its young LGBTQ viewers, at least, recalling how “A young woman said that she felt normal being a lesbian after seeing Thunder.”
A superhero who is so unapologetic about her queerness, her Blackness and her power—Thunder is engaged, sports box braids and cornrows, and fights crime in a gilded black suit—is especially meaningful at a time when representation is more crucial than ever. Historically, the Black community has struggled with accepting queerness, and people of color are still fighting towards diversity in LGBTQ+ spaces that are often white-centered. Even last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests had to assert that queer lives, especially trans lives, were as much a part of the conversation as others. As the fight for inclusion and equality continues on-ground, Black Lightning‘s commitment to spotlighting Black voices, especially Black queer joy, feels increasingly important.
Last June, Williams took to the streets of L.A. to join thousands of others calling for justice following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. “It felt like I was walking on a set, but there was no cut, no action,” she says of her protest experience. “You see it, you smell it. Cars are on fire. The protests just opened my eyes up even more. We still got a lot of work to do.”
She adds that the protests only sharpened her purpose, saying, “If anything, it made me want to celebrate my people more, buy Black, and do my part to make sure that the industry is as inclusive as possible.”
Williams had previously been vocal about championing a more inclusive Hollywood, especially on social media, but she amplified her efforts after attending the protests. She participated in panels about diversity in Hollywood and in July, even penned an essay on E! that called on Hollywood to “confront inequality head on” and “restructure the landscape.”
We have to make sure we hire more Black writers to tell Black stories. We as a people and as a culture are beyond tired of asking to be seen, heard and treated equally, she wrote.
Speaking now, Williams says, “When you play a character like Thunder there’s no way that you don’t inherit some of that into your real life. I wouldn’t be true to myself, I wouldn’t be true to Thunder if I did not use my voice and say what I feel is right and should be just.”
For the star, it’s simple: She has a platform and a purpose, so she speaks up. “Why fear?” she asks.
As if on cue, Williams points to the black hoodie she’s sporting over Zoom: Y-FEAR, it says in bold print. The label, short for Your Fears and Egos Aren’t Real, is her apparel line that she launched earlier this month. “My brand is all about being fearless,” she says, adding that she wants to help herself and others reframe their own fears, especially when people feel anxious and dejected. “I want people to look fly, but I also want people to have a fly mindset.”
The third season of Black Lightning ended with Thunder’s fiancée, Grace Choi, in a coma after a fight that disrupted their nuptials. Despite the darkness, Williams says that fans of the show, now on its fourth and final season, “are going to be excited for what’s to come with [Thunder’s] love life.”
If a wedding is on the horizon for Thunder, Williams will be ushering in another groundbreaking moment in TV history, something that she says she definitely wants to keep doing in future projects.
“Any job after this can’t just be a job,” she says. “If it’s not about inclusivity or about promoting who we are and the stories that need to be told, I’m really not interested.”