Thunder, First Black Lesbian Superhero, Inspires Us to Be Bold (Interview)

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Black Lightning has made waves. As well as the excitement of a superhero’s adventures, adapted from the DC Comics series, the show tells the story of a family and community struggling to survive in modern-day America. Police brutality is much more present a threat than any supervillain. Poverty is the main antagonist in many characters’ lives. In a time of widespread social unrest, it’s no surprise that Black Lightning has amassed an international following. Black Lightning has received critical acclaim for its sharp social commentary and slick combat scenes. And here at AfterEllen, we’re delighted by the introduction of Anissa Pierce – the first Black lesbian superhero to grace our television screens.

Even before her superpowers, Anissa Pierce wasn’t afraid to challenge injustice. Now she’s fighting crime as Thunder, Anissa is more devoted than ever to the welfare of her community. I interviewed Nafessa Williams, who plays Anissa on the Netflix hit.

Anissa Pierce, image courtesy of Anderson PR

AfterEllen: Anissa Pierce is Thunder, a Black lesbian superhero, which is a big first in terms of representation. How does it feel to be telling a story that isn’t often shown on the TV screen?

Nafessa Williams: It feels amazing. I’m really honored to give voiceover to the first Black lesbian superhero, and it’s really rewarding knowing that Black women as lesbians get to see themselves on television through this show. I believe that when we all turn on the television, when we go to the cinema, we want to see characters who look like us and whom we can relate to. Characters who are going through the same issues we are, and overcoming those issues, can be an inspiration.

AE: From the get-go, Anissa Pierce is an agent of change. Her organizing has even earned her the nickname ‘Harriet Tubman.’ What lessons do you think Anissa gives us about modern-day civil rights activism?

NW: She has been a person inspired by her forefathers and foremothers who went before her, like Harriet Tubman. She also follows the same ideals as Malcolm X: “by any means necessary.” She’s very fearless, and if she sees something that does not sit well with her she acts upon it – Anissa takes pride in that, and has fun while doing it. She uses her superhero abilities to work even more as an activist. I have pictures of Harriet Tubman as well as Malcolm X in my dressing room to remind myself, before I go out on set, that it’s their qualities and attributes within Anissa.

AE: Throughout Black Lightning we see Anissa is inspired by Black female organizers, like Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. She’s also inspired by Black female artists, like Beyoncé and Solange. Which Black women most inspire you?

NW: I’m definitely inspired by Oprah Winfrey, and inspired by Beyoncé – women who are driven and have the ambition to get things done and be leaders in their communities. When I think about ‘am I working hard enough?’, I think of those two.

image courtesy of Anderson PR

AE: Black Lightning is a really topical show that gets into the politics of difficult issues: police brutality, poverty, discrimination. But it’s also a show with a lot of heart, focussed on family and the Black community. How do you think the show manages to strike that balance?

NW: We definitely mirror political issues that are going on within our country, and try to shed light on them with the hope of sparking change in our communities – and, ultimately, our country. There’s also the lighter side of it shown through a family, just like any other (superpowers aside), overcoming trials. We watch them go through issues as a family, and see the Pierces stronger together. There’s a great sense that can get through anything because they’re together.

AE: As Anissa trains and develops her powers, the action scenes are amazing. What’s it like to film them?

NW: It’s fun but it’s tiring. At the end of the day, I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack Truck. But I wouldn’t trade my job for anybody else’s – I have fun, I get to be athletic. I feel like a kid again learning dance moves, because that’s what a fight scene is: choreography. Fighting is a style of dance, which means listening to your partner and choreographing everything out. It’s so cool putting on that suit and going out to fight, but it’s a hard day of work and you feel it!

AE: Do you have a stunt double?

NW: I do have a stunt double. Her name is Diandra [Stoddard], and she’s so badass! She makes me look really good, so kudos to her. And she teaches me a lot, too.

AE: When she develops her superpowers, Anissa says that “I’m willing to sacrifice my happiness so that other people can have theirs.” While she’s someone that puts duty first, increasingly Anissa is connecting with Grace. Without giving too much away, do you see her finding long-term happiness there?

NW: I think that Anissa is definitely ready and willing to take it to the next step. So we’ll just have to see how things turn out for them. It’s exciting, this whole superhero world we’re in. First season, Anissa was very much into being a superhero, getting to understand her powers, and figuring out how to make it work. Now she’s got that, she’s definitely ready to be in a more committed relationship with Grace.

AE: At times Anissa seems to struggle more with the identity of superhero, which is secret, than she does with being a lesbian, since she’s been out to her family since before Black Lightning began. What’s it like to play a character who was out from the beginning?

NW: I always loved that aspect of the character. There was no coming out moment: she knew she was a lesbian. She has shared it with her family, they’ve accepted it. The producers and the writers have done a great job of normalizing Anissa’s sexuality, and I love that she’s so bold and unapologetic about who she is. There wasn’t an episode of her coming out: lesbian is her sexual preference, and her family supported it.

image courtesy of Anderson PR

AE: Black Lightning flips the usual narrative, because usually lesbian stories are centered on coming out. It’s nice to see a woman who is confident in her sexuality.

NW: I know! What I love even more is that Anissa’s family were all really supportive of her being a lesbian, and I always hope that we’re inspiring families by encouraging parents to support their own child in coming out.

AE: When we first meet Anissa, she’s in a serious relationship with Chenoa. Now she’s sharing something significant with Grace. What do you think makes those dynamics so different?

The chemistry is what makes it different. Anissa and Grace have a connection that’s hard to explain. Anissa has found a connection with another person that makes her feel safe, makes her feel comfortable – Grace understands her on a level that Chenoa didn’t.

Chenoa was very territorial and a little controlling when it came to their relationship, whereas Grace allows Anissa to have her space – which is very important to Thunder, because she’s got this secret life that Grace doesn’t know about yet. It’s important for her to be with someone who is open-minded and capable of giving her the space that she needs to be a superhero. That’s the difference between the two relationships.

AE: What is the coolest part of playing Anissa for you, personally?

NW: The best part for me is being effective. And when I say being effective, I mean creating a character who the audience is able to connect with. And I think on a deeper level it feels important for lesbians to be able to turn to our show and see themselves reflected – Black lesbians in particular.

We’ve seen shows before where there are lesbian women of a different race, but there has been no Black lesbian superhero before. I’m honored to be that visual, to be a character women can be inspired by. Black lesbians can turn on the television and, for week after week, see someone who looks like them. I think the message Thunder is putting out there for Black lesbians is to be unapologetically who you are, and to be bold about it.