8 Black TV Superheroes Reflect on Representation, Their Personal Heroes and Saving the World

In honor of Black History Month, eight stars of TV's biggest superhero shows open up about what it means to them to play a Black superhero or comic book character.

By Lauren Piester, Alyssa Ray Feb 26, 2022 5:00 PMTags
Watch: CW Stars Kaci Walfall & Javicia Leslie Talk Showcasing Diverse Voices

It's a good time to be a superhero, especially on TV. 

Though the last year had us saying goodbye to WandaVisionBlack Lightning and Supergirl, there's still plenty of superhero content to enjoy. Between BatwomanThe FlashStargirl, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, Doom Patrol, Titans, Superman & Lois, Watchmen, The Boys and CW's new addition Naomi, there's something for everybody—an ever-growing rainbow of role models, anti-role models and powerful badasses to inspire and entertain us. This Black History Month, we're celebrating the fact that more of those superheroes are Black than ever before. 

In 2020, Batwoman welcomed Javicia Leslie, a Black bisexual woman, as its new lead. Black Lightning wrapped up its impressive run in 2021 after having introduced one of TV's first Black lesbian superheroes with Thunder (Nafessa Williams). And, on the wildly successful WandaVision, a new Marvel hero joined the fold in the form of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and if the comics are any indication, she's about to be a real force to be reckoned with. 

Even as the world is still mourning the loss of Chadwick Boseman, who played the incomparable Black Panther and died in August 2020, there are a lot of heroes to celebrate. 

Renewed and Canceled TV Shows 2021 Guide

A few superheroes from some of TV's biggest shows opened up to E! News about what it means to play a superhero or comic book character, and who their biggest personal heroes and inspirations are and were growing up. 

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Javicia Leslie, Ryan Wilder/Batwoman on Batwoman

On playing Batwoman: "When I auditioned for it, I didn't think I'd get it. I just felt like, it doesn't make sense, like, Batwoman's was not Black. [I thought,] 'This is interesting that they didn't just ask for a Caucasian actress, but whatever, I'll just audition for it.' So when I did get it, the first thing I was excited about was getting the job. But then the second thing I was excited about was, 'Oh, cool. I'm a superhero.' And then when the trades went out, and it titled it first Black Batwoman, that was the first time I put it together that 'Oh, yeah, this hasn't been done.' And so immediately, I felt that responsibility. I was super excited to be a part of this journey that's gonna make any kind of difference, but I'm really just doing what I love."

On her personal hero: "My mom raised my brother and I by herself, and she's also prior army. She did two tours in Iraq just before she retired a few years ago. Anything that she wanted to make happen, she has made happen. I promise, y'all, she's literally a superhero."

Kaci Walfall, Naomi McDuffie on Naomi

On playing Naomi: "I've seen little girls—their parents send photos to me—of them in the Naomi hairstyles. And that's so fun because there's a new hairstyle every episode. But that's really one of the joys of getting to do what I do, touching people and making people feel something."

On her personal hero: "My superhero's my mom. My mom is a principal, and she runs an elementary school of 800 kids. And she does it, but she also comes home and encourages us. Just this past year, she took off of work for the first time in 20 years, to take me to do Naomi. To take me to live my dream."

David Harewood, Martian Manhunter/J'onn J'onnz on Supergirl

On playing J'onn J'onnz: 

"It has been a great honour playing J'onn J'onnz on the CW these past 5 years.  Having the opportunity to represent such a strong and honourable Black superhero. In these extremely testing times has been one of the highlights of my career. As a kid growing up, there were very few superheroes that looked like me on television so I'm extremely proud to have given a generation of young people the chance to see themselves represented in this genre." 

On his personal heroes: 

"Growing up I was always an Incredible Hulk fan! I was struck by his power and strength, but the fact that he used his abilities for good always struck me as important. There was always purpose to his destruction—it was never indiscriminate and there seemed to be a gentleness to this huge creature that spoke to his humanity.

In terms of Black superheroes for me there is only one—Black Panther! Never has a superhero film had such an impact on me before or since and Chadwick's performance imbued the role with such grace and humility that the character made for a true hero. The film itself had such a massive cultural impact that I think it stands alone as a truly inspirational piece of work that will inspire generations." 

Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Vixen/Amaya/Charlie on Legends of Tomorrow

On playing Vixen: 

"Growing up, I so rarely saw characters who looked like me on screen, and I never saw a Black superhero. The lack of diverse representation can have a deep effect on children's confidence and sense of self worth. I am so proud to have had the opportunity to portray Vixen in DC's Legends of Tomorrow, and to see an increasing number of diverse superheroes on our screens. The power that comes from seeing yourself reflected back to you is immeasurable. It tells you that you should be proud of who you are, and that you can achieve anything, including saving the world!" 

Camrus Johnson, Luke Fox on Batwoman

On playing Luke: 

"Playing a superhero is an absolute dream come true—not only because every time I see a comic book now I think of my job, but I also feel like I've already made my place in history. Growing up, Static Shock was my absolute favorite superhero because he both reminded me of myself and also proved that nerdy, goofy black kids can save the day too. Since Static Shock hasn't been on TV since I was a kid, I hope that I've reminded other little black boys out there now that we're also heroes—and we always will be." 

Joivan Wade, Cyborg/Victor Stone on Doom Patrol

On his personal heroes: 

"The superhero that had the most impact on me growing up actually has to be Cyborg. He was the first Black superhero I knew about and the first one I identified with. 

I grew up watching Teen Titans and the Justice League cartoons which made me fall in love the idea of Cyborg and there being a Black superhero. 

I look up to all the Black superheroes now namely Black Panther, Miles Morales, and, one of my old school favourites, Static Shock. They all played a strong part in my childhood and helped me believe I could be a superhero just from the colour of their skin and being able to see myself within them."  

On playing Cyborg:  

"It means everything to me to be able to represent my people and fill the shoes of Victor Stone / Cyborg. Knowing young kids can look up to and identify with me—not only a cartoon but a live action version of the character—makes it all that more surreal. It's a responsibility and an honour to be able to fly this flag. I don't take it for granted for a minute. I can't wait to continue this journey and keep inspiring the uninspired with more Black superhero stories." 

Henry Simmons, Mack on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

On playing Mack: 

"Alfonso 'Mack' Mackenzie isn't a superhero and doesn't have any superpowers, which made him even more interesting to play. I love that he's an everyman who takes on seemingly insurmountable circumstances without the assurance of a probable victory. It meant a great deal to me that in the final two seasons the executives of the show chose a Black character to be the head of SHIELD. Black children can see a team of superheroes being led by someone who looks like them. Positive representation is incredibly important." 

On his personal heroes: 

"That's why I connected so deeply as a child with Black Panther. Black Panther was one of the few heroes that looked like me. He would fight and never quit, and he carried himself with pride. Namor the Submariner also had an impact because he was an outsider, had dignity, and commanded respect.

My hero now is my mother. Her example of selflessness, grace, and unwavering love is a constant inspiration to me. There will never be another equivalent." 

Nafessa Williams, Thunder/Anissa Pierce on Black Lightning

On playing Thunder: 

"To me, playing Thunder has been a dream come true. I have been more than proud to give my voice over to the First Black Lesbian Superhero. I'm really grateful that little brown girls can watch Black Lightning and see themselves in my character, that makes me happy!" 

On the Black superheroes she looked up to: 

"I didn't have superheroes who looked like me growing up who I could actually relate to. Claire Huxtable [from The Cosby Show] was a superhero in my eyes. She's the reason I'm an actress. Phylicia Rashad's BrownSkin, sassy personality and independence was very inspiring to see as a little brown girl." 

Nafessa Williams is also an entrepreneur who just launched Y-FEAR, a unisex apparel brand. 

Now, if you're anything like us, you might be asking "Where is the live-action Static Shock we all deserve?" 

The answer to that question is a good one: Michael B. Jordan is producing a movie for Warner Bros. about the high schooler with electromagnetic powers. Static had his own animated show in the early 2000s, and now we may finally get to see him on the big screen! Good news for all.

(A version of this story originally published on Feb. 20, 2021 at 9 a.m. PT)