When she flashed onto television screens last year, Nafessa Williams was a force to be reckoned with on the critically acclaimed and groundbreaking Black Lightning. Playing the first Black lesbian superhero — as part of the first Black superhero family on network TV — Williams wowed as a queer millennial medical student and health educator who rejects the respectability politics of her parent’s generation. The show, as well as the blockbuster film Black Panther, ushered in a new era in which Black women (and men) were portrayed as powerful, desirable, and honorable purveyors of justice and morality. In an era of Brett Kavanaugh and pee tapes, the new Black superhero story was a refreshing change — part escape, part resistance, and wholly enjoyable.
Williams, a still-friendly Philadelphia native with such a disarming laugh it demands your full attention, juggled acting with pre-law at college. (Ironically, it was a stint working in the homicide office of the district attorney that convinced her crime fighting in real-life wasn’t for her.) Her first break came in Meek Mills’ film, Streets, in 2011, followed by parts on TV (Code Black, One Life to Live), a film (the Sundance stunner, Burning Sands), and a recurring role in Showtime’s revival of Twin Peaks. Host of the VIP Happy Hour on YouTube (in which she and her girl friends, inspire and motivate women to live the #girlboss life), Williams volunteers with The Beatrice Foundation, feeding the homeless on downtown L.A.’s notorious Skid Row. And even though the badass babe is straight in real life, she takes her role as a lesbian superhero very seriously.
I love the character of Anissa (aka Thunder). You’re balancing superhuman strength and amazing fighting skills with frequently being the moral compass of the show. How does she balance that? I truly believe family, and her passion for activism, are the anchors to Anissa-Thunder and really help to keep her balanced.
Last year was a great year with both Black Lightning and Black Panther premiering. Is this a sea change or just a blip? No, I think the shift has definitely happened. It’s been proven that Black superheroes are successful at the box office and in television. I think it would be foolish to not continue to push forward the way the culture has been shifted so far.
What would it have meant to have a Black superhero with cornrows or an afro on TV when you were a little girl growing up in Philly? It would have made me feel like I was seen. It would have made me feel like I was a part of a genre that we all know and love, and I think that is what is so inspiring for me as an actor — what it means to people who are watching me.
Does it surprise you that we’ve come so far since Stonewall in 1969 (where lesbians were fighting just to be seen as human) and the March on Washington in 1963 (where Black women were fighting to be seen as human) that now you get to play a Black lesbian superhero that TV viewers are rooting for? I think what surprises me more is that we’ve taken so long to get to this point. With that being said, every day I feel so honored to be giving a voice to this character because for the first time that it’s being done for lesbians and women who look like me.
Your character is the first Black lesbian superhero. Do you feel a lot of pressure to do justice to the role? It never really crossed my mind or made me feel pressure in any kind of way. I had the mindset of: I just have to kill it and How do I do that? Which I feel comes from the foundation of love, and if I was doing that then I would do the character justice. Just like with any other character, it’s not different from telling a love story or any other kind of story from a heterosexual view point.
What part of Thunder (or Anissa) is most like real-life Nafessa? Her fearlessness and standing up for what she believes in are definitely two traits that are most like me.
Since you’ve been playing a lesbian superhero, have the number of times you get hit on by women ramp up dramatically? Yes. Especially on social media. I haven’t met anyone that’s too aggressive, but online definitely.
The producers have said that the show isn’t part of the Arrowverse but they’ve teased a crossover. If they decide to do a crossover with one of the other shows, like Supergirl or Arrow, which would you prefer and what would be a perfect Thunder storyline? I already fight with Black Lightning, so I already know what it’s like to fight with a male superhero. So, I think it would be really great to have a crossover with Supergirl with a female empowerment storyline. I definitely want to team up with another female superhero for sure!
Can you tell me anything about Thunder in season 3? I have no idea other than I’m looking forward to Lightning joining us. I’m really excited for the three of us to team up as a family.
You’re high femme at our cover shoot, but I read you’re a tomboy at heart. Is that true? What were you like growing up? I’m a true mix of both. I’m super girly girl but I’m also a tomboy. I grew up with a brother and two cousins that were close to my age, so I didn’t have a lot of female energy around me. The people I was closest with were boys, so I got just as rough as they did at times. I think that’s really where I get my tomboy energy from — whatever activity they were doing, football or whatever, I was a part of it.
How do you stay true to your Philly roots? By keeping my feet planted there, remembering that it’s really made me who I am.
Mara Brock Akil, who is Black, and Greg Berlanti, who is gay, are both producers on this show (Greg also produces Arrow and Supergirl, among others). How much do they influence you and your work? Well Mara is a superhero whom I’ve always looked up to. Her class, her wisdom, and her creativity are things that inspire me. Overall though, their fearlessness to tell this story is a big inspiration for me and has influenced my work a lot.
You have a film, Black and Blue, out in September. What can you tell me about it? I can’t tell you much, but it’s a thriller about a police officer who witnesses a murder and I play the childhood best friend of Naomi Harris.
Tell me the best thing a fan has ever said to you. The best thing a fan has ever said to me is that after seeing me as Thunder she feels normal being a lesbian. That was really special.
Photography by Luke Fontana
Stylist Aisha Rae
Assistant Stylist Angel Cross
Hair and Makeup Sameerah Hoddison and Claire Gonella