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2018’s Icons, Innovators, and Disruptors

Nafessa Williams On Black Lightning Courtesy The Cw

Nafessa Willimas: Is Like Thunder and Lightning
As TV’s first black lesbian superhero, Nafessa Williams hopes to inspire other “little brown girls.”

This January, history was made when Nafessa Williams slipped into the role of Anissa Pierce, a.k.a. Thunder, in the CW’s Black Lightning. The groundbreaking show features the first black superhero family on network TV. Set in New Orleans, the show centers on family patriarch Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a charter school principal who is struggling with a long-held secret. Nine years ago, he was gifted the superhuman power to harness and control electricity, which he used to keep his town safe as the masked vigilante Black Lightning.

Fearing that violence might spill over and impact his family, Jefferson left his superhero days behind to settle into a more stable life as principal and attentive dad. Now his daughters Anissa and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) are discovering they have superpowers of their own, which they embrace as Thunder and Lightning. Together, the two women inspire their dad to rise again and help save their city from rampant crime and corruption.

“I’m really honored,” Williams says about playing Thunder. “We don’t really get to see young, black women opposite each other on TV and film. I’m really proud to play a role for young lesbian women to see themselves [and] to see how loving and supportive the family is. I believe that families of lesbian and gay teenagers need to see that, if they’re struggling with accepting their child’s sexuality.”

To get herself superhero-ready, Williams says she followed the example of one of her own idols: 1970s blaxploitation star Pam Grier.

“I went back and studied her and her action films. I think she’s such a bad ass!” says Williams, who’s been stunt training for the role since last summer. She adds that Black Lightning creator Mara Brock Akil “is another hero. I’ve always admired her… I just think she’s so eloquent and classy and smart. How she tells stories … and sets them up for black women to look strong and independent on TV, the messages that are within her writing. Then, she’s beautiful as hell!”

Just as in the DC Comics series of the same name, Thunder has a love interest, a bisexual woman, Grace Choi, played on the show by Pretty Little Liars star Chantal Thuy.

Like her superhero character, Williams is a force to be reckoned with. The onetime law school student previously worked with the homicide unit in Philadelphia’s district attorney’s office.

“I’ve lived a life before getting into this industry,” Williams says proudly. “I think that it’s helped keep me grounded.” Williams says that back then she would often cry at her desk, knowing that acting was what she was meant to do. One day, she decided to become “her own superhero” and went to an audition.

“They told me I couldn’t go, I couldn’t have time off, and I went anyway,” she remembers. “I [returned] the next day, and I couldn’t log into my computer. They fired me. I was literally fired for going on an audition — but it changed my life.”

A little over a year later, Williams landed a series regular role on One Life to Live and moved to New York City. “That was the confirmation that this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. “Life begins when you walk in your purpose. When you follow your dreams, you encourage other people to follow theirs.”

Having grown up in the inner city of Philadelphia, Williams says playing Thunder — whose major intention is to rid her community of crime while also inspiring kids to get an education — is literally a dream come true.

“This [role] means a lot to me, for young black girls to see me come out of the same place they are in, and go off to be a superhero,” she says. “My goal is to empower young women to walk in their own superhero, whatever that is — whether you’re a young single mother, whether you’re a student, whether you are volunteering in your community.”

“Who would’ve thought that this little girl in the ghetto in Philly would be playing the first black, lesbian superhero on network TV?” Williams asks rhetorically. “Ultimately, my goal is to inspire little brown girls that look like me, that are sitting on the porch wearing cornrows.” —DA

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