Even in pop culture's Marvel and DC-saturated landscape, Black Lightning manages to feel like a superhero show unlike anything else out there right now — socially relevant, racially charged, and more concerned with preserving a city block than saving the world. As such, the series needed a villain more down-to-Earth than your average Ares or Asgardian.
Enter baritone-voiced rapper turned actor Marvin "Krondon" Jones III as Tobias Whale, leader of Freeland's notorious 100 gang. A former politician, Whale rules from the shadows, emerging only to tighten his grip on the community or, occasionally, shoot an underling with a harpoon gun. But the character has layers; like the man who portrays him, Whale is an African American living with albinism, a walking example of the identity struggle that gives Black Lightning its emotional center.
"I love black people. I hate incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don't-itch negroes like you," Whale says during Black Lightning's second episode, in an exchange so shockingly blunt it'll make you wonder when the Arrowverse moved to HBO. "Y'all keep us acting like newly freed slaves."
Jones III chatted with SYFY WIRE about that exchange, and what his character's struggles with his own individuality will mean going forward. In doing so, we eventually landed on what makes Tobias Whale the perfect foil for — and, in a way, mirror image of — Cress Williams' Jefferson Pierce, better known to the streets as Black Lightning.
What I got from [episode two, "Lawanda: The Book of Hope"] is that Tobias is obviously this ruthless character, but he also has a certain set of rules. What would you say those rules are?
Marvin Jones III: Definitely, I'm glad that you picked up on what's to come, in the sense of exposing Tobias' morals. I think that everybody, every human, no matter who you are, even the villain, the most heinous murderer, has a limit. A level that they won't go to. We got a glimpse in episode two what Tobias' limit may be, or what his moral fiber consists of. I don't want to give too much away because you got to keep watching, because it does expose itself later on.
It also felt like the entire exchange with Lala, where Tobias says he "loves black people," is important to the character. How does that idea of an identity struggle extend to Tobias' entire personality?
Deeply, honestly. Once we get into Tobias' backstory, and as we start to reveal the backstory, it will make a lot more sense. Tobias Whale is an African-American supervillain with albinism. He has received some ridicule and degradation from his own people more so than any other race of people. Anyone, in any ethnic group, with albinism deals with this. The ignorance amongst their own people. We look different in general, and unique and beautiful in our own right. But to our own ethnic group, it's even more of a contrast to what they know.
So Tobias Whale being an African American with albinism, and me Marvin Jones being that, I was able to relate to that backstory. As the series develops, you'll be able to get more in tune with why he in particular thinks this way. Overall, I just think Tobias Whale wants his people to be better.
From that same exchange, I got the idea that Tobias has this very particular idea about control, and holding on to it. How much was that in the back of your mind while you were crafting this character?
I think the goal of every villain — and Tobias Whale is very much included in that — is to gain full economy of whatever worldly universe they are in. Tobias Whale being the kingpin of Freeland, he definitely wants to control it. Being an ex-politician, of course, he has that sense of community leader yet community villain. He has this need, to want to be admired but also control and manipulate. It's a balance.
It's interesting that he's a former politician, because he still carries himself like one. Is there anything you took or looked at from real life to nail that part of the character?
Yes, I did. It's funny, when I was crafting this character, I was working with some of my colleagues, especially James Remar, early on. And we were tossing back ideas, and I went the dictator route. I studied some dictators. I won't tell you exactly who, but some not so nice people. And not the obvious ones, either. I didn't go with the obvious ones, as far as notoriety is concerned. I went deeper, did some homework, studied some mannerisms and internal character traits. I'll give one, was Mussolini, he was one of the cats I looked at. I read Moby Dick. I'm not gonna lie, I didn't finish it…
It's okay, neither did I.
That's a heavy one. A book that big has to have Jesus in it for me to finish it. But I did dive into that for research.
Jefferson himself is a pillar of the community, a role model, very much carries himself like a politician as well. What do you think makes Tobias the ideal foil to Jefferson?
It's the truth. What you'll see is, Tobias Whale and Jefferson Pierce have more similarities than they do differences. If you just pull one thing, from episode one, they're both on that wanted sign. Black Lightning and Tobias Whale. They both feel ostracized from their community. And on the side of Jefferson Pierce, they are both political figures in the community. They do deal with things in the terms of politics. They both run on opposite spectrums, but at the same time, with the same ironclad approach. Their approach is the same. If you think about it, they both want their people to be better.
Overall, what would you say is the key thing that sets Black Lightning as a series apart in the comic book medium?
Well one, we have the best executive producers in television right now in the writing room, Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil. Our cast is a premiere tier talent. I'm the rookie of the team. It's like I'm coming on to a championship dynasty team straight out of high school. I feel very privileged and honored in that sense.
But to the show's credit, unlike all of the superhero things happening — except for a few, except for maybe Luke Cage, which I love dearly — it's set in modern reality. These are issues that are true and relevant to today's times and our community. The African American community in particular. Black Lightning gives you such a feel of reality that you almost get lost in the superhero element. Consistently, throughout the hour, you're reminded that it's a superhero show, because it's so deep-rooted in reality. I think that's the key, that's the thing about Black Lightning that's going to give it legs for years to come.