How Thunder On 'Black Lightning' Is Changing TV ― And Actor Nafessa Williams
Black Lightning isn't your average superhero show. Sure, it features a metahuman family banding together to save the world — or at least, their beloved city of Freeland — but that family is also Black, and amid a still exceedingly homogenous TV landscape, that representation matters. This goes doubly so for Anissa "Thunder" Pierce, played by Nafessa Williams, who made history as TV's first Black lesbian superhero. Over the course of the show, her staunch activism and superhuman strength have made her a fan favorite, but it's her compassion for the Freeland community that really makes her someone to watch — emblematic of exactly the kind of advocates we need in real life, too.
When viewers first met Anissa, she was already an avid protester who was tired of "turning the other cheek" toward injustice, but her newly discovered powers emboldened her to fight even harder. This season, she's become a Robin Hood-esque figure who steals money from local drug dealers and gives it to families for their legal fees. She's truly giving a voice to people who have been ignored and, methods aside, earnestly wants to help her community.
This mirrors Williams' pre-Black Lightning career in the criminal justice field, and is just one of many things that she has in common with her character. "There's a lot of parallels between the both of us," Williams tells Bustle over the phone. "One of them is her fearlessness. When I first saw the character breakdown of who she was and what she believed in, I knew I had to get my voice over."
Against a superhero universe dominated by primarily white, male characters, Anissa certainly lends a fresh perspective, showcasing the complex socioeconomic issues Black women face and challenging antiquated ideas about what it means to be hero. In the show's premiere episode, she witnessed police violence against her father, dealt with attempted sex trafficking involving her sister, and faced bigoted language from a local gang member. She also frequently pushes back against violence and the economic plights of community centers — both issues disenfranchised Black neighborhoods face each day, but that are rarely given space on-screen.
Still, for all of Anissa's badass crime-fighting, it's her inner strength that Williams believes is the most powerful. Unlike her father, the titular Black Lightning, Anissa has to deal with constant sexism, as well as being underestimated as a female hero. Following the recent (and historic) Midterm Elections that put a lot of women of color in office, that feels especially timely. And though Thunder may be more of a vigilante, she's fighting for Freeland in her own way.
"The activist in her inspires the activist in me even more, especially where we are within our country and the things that are going on," Williams says. "It inspired me to want to be smarter and more aware of where we are as a country and the things that we go through as a people."
This impact can be seen on Williams' Instagram, where she's become a "she-ro" in her own right. Her page is filled with motivating messages about voting and following your passion, and her role as Anissa is concrete proof that a positive mindset pays off. To Williams, landing the part was confirmation that her past rejections were all building toward this one, perfect opportunity. She loves the character’s passion and believes her own platform can similarly be used to highlight injustice and effect change.
Anissa may be changing the world, but it's safe to say she's changing Williams, too.