Meet TV's First Black Lesbian Superhero

Meet TV's First Black Lesbian Superhero

Nafessa Williams knows the importance of representation and is embracing her role that is helping pave the way for more inclusion in the entertainment industry.

Nafessa Williams knows the importance of representation and is embracing her role that is helping pave the way for more inclusion in the entertainment industry.

Text: Jack Reilly

Authenticity was the word that Nafessa Williams emphasized when talking about her character in the CW’s show Black Lightning. The show is about a family of superheroes and stars a predominantly black cast. Being the first of its kind, light has been shone on this breakthrough series, especially when it comes to Anissa Pierce, also known as “Thunder”, who is TV’s first black lesbian superhero.

Williams is a 29-year-old actress from Philadelphia who is eager to share her passions with the world. As she describes it, there is a cultural shift happening in the industry when it comes to queer representation, and she is honored to be the one to help put that shift in motion. She believes that all groups should see an accurate portrayal of themselves in the media.

The show focuses on normalizing underrepresented sexualities and identities and telling accurate and truthful stories to relate to their viewers. V had a chat with Nafessa to talk about playing this role, working on set, and her own personal goals for the show.

Nafessa Williams by Annagjid 'Kee' Taylor

A lot of marginalized groups don't see a ton of representation in all forms of media. When you were cast in the show how did that feel?

I was so excited. I believe that representation is really important and when we go to the cinema or we watch tv, we want to see characters that look like us, that we can relate to, and hopefully be inspired by. I know that it is important for me to tell this story. It’s also really exciting because these are creators that I've always wanted to work with. I knew that they created such strong and independent female characters, and there were different worlds and generations of black representation. Of course being a woman of color, I know what it’s like to want to see more of yourself on television. I wanted to make sure that the representation was very clear and very visual. I am very honored to be chosen and am excited to be the face of change. I believe a shift is happening with our show and other shows like it who are highlighting LGBT characters. I think that we will definitely see more of people.

I agree and think that representation is growing, but there is still a long way for us to go. Being a woman of color and having experienced that, has it been difficult for you to find roles available to you that you are passionate about?

In the past there has been, but I definitely knew when it came to this show. I tell people all the time that this job, it wasn't so that I could have work. I am truly passionate about the character and the story that we are telling and I think it's very necessary. I’ve been doing this job for more than two years now and I haven’t really had to explore too many more options or look for any other roles. Being able to tell the story of the first black lesbian superhero is something I am super passionate about. That alone has changed the dynamic. I think its also up to us as artists to take control and create those roles. I am already interested in writing scripts and creating roles that I am passionate about and not waiting for them to come to me.

We gotta take control. I am super inspired by Issa Rae and Donald Glover and a lot of my peers who have done that. They have shown me the blueprint and that it can be done. It’s a really exciting time.

It is definitely really exciting to see queer and POC characters taking the role of a superhero. You see a lot of recent movies about young kids coming out but a queer superhero is not something that happens often.

It hasn’t happened. And again I think that the shift is happening and we will see more of that. For example, there was a post on Instagram of a young black gay man. He was doing stunts and he was flipping and doing all of these superhero moves in heels and it went viral. Lee Daniels said “I’m gonna create a film and a character that's gonna be the first gay superhero that is a black man” and that’s so cool that the paradigm has shifted.

It is really cool and very inspiring.

And it's because of shows like our show that is highlighting LGBT characters that make the shows that come after us even possible.

One thing about the show too that is really exciting is that you guys have worked really hard on normalizing your character's sexuality. As an actress, how do you find a balance between normalizing it but at the same time still embracing it as an important part of who she is?

You know what? I think that's my favorite part about playing thunder, and especially for the LGBT community that is tuning in. We’ve done a really great job of normalizing the idea of her being a lesbian. I have friends and family members who are gay and who are lesbian and they went through a lot, so it’s great to see that we are giving this generation a character whose family is supporting her. There’s no coming out, there's no conversation about her being gay, it’s just her. I think my whole thing is the family part. Those who are tuning in who have a teenager who might be on the verge of coming out or maybe that have already, maybe they’re being inspired by us to be just as supportive as the characters on the show, do you know what I mean? And I think the balance of that is just authentically and boldly walking in the truth of who the character is and making the foundation of all of it love. And so when we tell that story and continue to tell that truth, then the fans are going to relate and it's going to be real and it's gonna connect. And I think that’s what most people appreciate.

Yeah, I think a lot of producers are exploiting queer people rather than embracing them and truly representing them, so it’s great you guys are doing that.

Yes, embracing them and loving them. Well, thank you for that. I am glad that we are providing that love and support. That’s why I think so many of our fans are able to relate so thank you. It’s my honor.

I only recently heard about this show and I thought that it was the coolest thing ever being a superhero show with a predominantly black cast. I had no idea there was a lesbian character too, and that makes it even greater.

Yeah, when I first went for the role I didn’t know she was a lesbian, I just went off the script. When I found out she was a lesbian I was even more excited knowing that I would be opposite of a woman. All of the other roles I have been opposite of a man and as an artist you want to stretch yourself and challenge yourself and do different things. Playing a lesbian who is also a superhero has honestly been a dream on another level that’s come true.

Definitely. Have there been any challenges that you’ve faced with this part?

I think just the pressure to make sure that you are telling the authentic truth of the character so that the fans can relate. It's that relatability that grabs an audience. It’s all about being honest. It feels like it’s connecting. As an artist and an actor I want to be effective with every role that I do and I feel like this is one that has been very effective. We just wrapped season two and I am really excited to go back to season three and make it even better, connect even more, and continue to tell an authentic story.

Obviously the show has been really successful which is great. How has the response been? Has it been mostly positive or do you receive any negative comments?

I just said this a little while ago that about 95% of people say something positive. There’s only a handful of people, who I always ignore, that have something to say about her being a lesbian. It's very very rare. I don't get it all the time I promise it is way more support than anything. But some people will say things like “it’s such a great show why did you have to make her gay?” and I tell people all the time that they are just ignorant to the fact that we are paying homage to exactly how the character was created in the comic book. I ignore it because like I said being a woman of color, I know not feeling like I’ve been represented to a certain point, and I can connect with my peers. I can connect with the ways that the LGBT community are seeing themselves. But there really has been very few, most people are open-minded enough to understand it. I’ve had a lot of young women and lesbians reach out to me and say, "I’m so happy that I’m seeing myself on TV", I talk to them. So I don’t pay attention, I’m too high up to notice any of the negative energy.

You said that you feel connected to and are an ally to the LGBT community, and vice-versa. In what ways do you feel connected to your character? Do you see any similarities between yourself and her?

Yeah, we definitely share the similarity of being bold and fearless and walking with the authenticity of who we are. Anissa doesn’t take no for an answer and my friends will tell you that same thing about me. We’re both really driven and I try to have an optimistic mindset most of the time. I feel like anything is possible, and she has that same passion and drive. Honestly, there is a parallel because in the first season she was finding her way as a superhero and I was finding my way as a woman at the same time. I was able to give her so much and vice-versa. It’s been really beautiful playing her, I’ve learned so much and have opened up so much, and I’m so excited to start season three so soon! It came as, not a shock but, I wasn't prepared to hear it. So yeah!

When will you guys start filming?

Well, we just wrapped about two weeks ago so if it’s like last season, probably around June. We shot for about seven months until January, so we’ll be going back soon.

Whats the filming process like? How is the relationship between cast members and producers?

You know, I say all the time that we are really like a family. It’s beautiful to see all people come to work, whether you’re in the sound department or whether you’re in wardrobe, we all come to work with our A game. Because we care and we’re passionate about the show and we want to do this for the culture. I’m blessed to work with who I do, I really am. It does take about thirty minutes to get into the costume but seriously, playing a superhero is the most fun job you can have, so I'm really having fun right now. You’re jumping around, doing stunts, staying very active. You’re like a kid again. You’re staying very playful, so to be able to do that and get paid for it is great.

Do you do a lot of stunts on set?

I do. I have a stunt double but as an actor, you still have to know a fight through and through. Even though we have stunt doubles we still have to get our close-ups and get footage of us doing it. So sometimes it’s a lot of stunt rehearsal. Some days I will get off work and go to stunt rehearsal and learn a fight. It's not an easy job, I won't say that. It’s fun, but it’s not easy at all, you know the preparation that it takes. Being in the costume for 12 hours and you can't go to the bathroom without someone helping you so, its a project being in the suit but you do feel like a superhero once it’s on.

What’s it like when you wrap up filming?

First, you’re excited that you finished another season. Then you realize afterward that you work really really hard and you’re working these long hours, so I always try to find that balance of taking care of myself too. Making sure that I’m treating myself and getting my rest. It’s some relief and you get to say hey, I’m gonna go recharge for the next season.

Obviously, this show is unique and pretty breakthrough. What do you think stands out about it?

I think that we are authentically telling the story of a black family, and we’re superheroes. I think we are authentic in our choices of writing, in our choices of music, and we grab from a wide range of audiences. There are eight-year-olds who watch, who will tell us “I watch this show with my grandma.” We transcend age, we transcend race, and I think that is what makes our show unique. You never see a superhero that comes from the ghetto to save lives. You’ve just never seen that on tv or film. So yeah, it’s a really cool thing.

Nafessa is now in New Orlean's working on Black and Blue, a film starring Naomie Harris.

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