The first episode of Black Lightning begins with this poem:
“Justice, like lightning, should ever appear, to some men, hope, and to other men, fear.”
These words, lifted directly from the comics source material, clearly indicate how much this new superhero series is dedicated to staying true to its roots. Black Lightning gives the limelight to a relatively unknown character from the DC universe, and there’s no better time to do so.
Black Lightning brings several social issues facing the US to the fore, and doesn’t shy away from realistically depicting scenes you’d never see in other superhero fare. He is one of the most relevant and needed superheroes today.
It’s a troubled world…
In the series premiere, we meet Jefferson Pierce (played by the very charismatic Cress Williams), the principal of Garfield High School. More importantly, he is father to two daughters, both of whom get in different kinds of trouble. The elder, Anissa (Nafessa Williams, no relation), is arrested for a street protest against the city’s gang The 100. The younger, Jennifer (China Anne McClain), is almost forced into prostitution while hanging out at a nightclub owned by said gang.
While driving to an event after picking up Anissa from police custody, Jefferson gets stopped by a white police officer. He’s yanked out of his car into pouring rain and handcuffed. His only crime? Driving while black. The frustrating absurdity of the situation angers Jefferson so much, he drains the power the flashing lights of the police car and causes the street lamps to flicker.
That’s because Jefferson is the retired superhero, Black Lightning.
… but it’s definitely our world
The Pierce family is a microcosm of the show’s conceit – that justice isn’t a simple, two-dimensional concept. Jefferson, having played superhero for several years, is contented with his role as Garfield High’s principal, where he has been a long-time nurturing presence within the neighbourhood. His idea of justice is one of balance, negotiating an uneasy, but effective peace between gang members and the police, with his school being a safe zone.
His elder daughter Anissa is much more headstrong and defiant – her sense of justice cannot tolerate the presence of The 100. Her activism is in marches, protests and civil disobedience, and she often stands up for what she believes in without considering the consequences. There is a powerful scene where father and daughter quote prominent black activists at each other during an argument over their different ideologies.
When The 100’s influence begins to grow under the leadership of crime boss Tobias Whale, it precipitates the unexpected return of Black Lightning and brings a renewed sense of hope to the city. But is Black Lightning back for the city, or only for his own self interest?
The superhero series we don’t deserve, but we need
While there’s no doubt that this is a superhero series – this is still a CW show after all, and the costumes give it away – there’s also a stark reality that’s pretty unprecedented here, without hints of worn-out tropes or stereotypes.
The Pierce family is middle-class, well-educated, and mingles with Garfield High’s richer and more influential benefactors, including Ohio Senator Nina Turner (playing herself!). Later that night, Jennifer, the younger Pierce daughter, hangs out with the wrong company and is drawn into the dominant gang’s world.
But The 100 aren’t a group of one-dimensional criminals either. The episode also introduces us to a contrast in communities, where intimidation and misogyny exist, but where society is still governed by a harsh code of conduct. While the spectre of The 100 is constantly felt within the community, it never takes over or consumes… yet.
Black Lightning’s creators and showrunners Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil have ensured there is always a conscious balance when depicting grit and violence. The show constantly contrasts passion with fear, violence with justice, and danger with security.
As a result, the series achieves a rare success in superhero shows – portraying a world we could all easily be part of. Whenever guns are drawn in this series, you never for a second feel invincible. In the face of firearms, you feel the true terror on the faces of the characters. The show doesn’t shy away from bloodshed either, but it’s never done gratuitously.
It’s a series that never forgets what it’s truly about
In the hands of lesser showrunners, it would be so easy to get lost in the series. There’s very little in terms of exposition – Black Lightning is a firm believer in show, don’t tell. But because it’s grounded in so much reality, the superhero aspects of the show never overwhelm.
A fan of the comics will feel perfectly at home here (maybe even grin at a certain homage during a security camera playback), but even someone who knows nothing about Black Lightning’s universe, like me, never feels like they need to read a Wikipedia entry to follow the narrative.
That doesn’t mean that it forgets that it’s still a superhero show, and conservatively peppers the narrative with opportunities to suspend belief. The main antagonist, Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) is, in every sense, a true comic book villain who surrounds himself with aquatic references. (May I take a second here to laud the casting of an albino African-American to play an albino African-American?!?)
Jefferson’s mentor, Peter Gambi (James Remar) is, for lack of a better analogy, a convenient combination of Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, and no explanation is given for his seemingly unlimited resources for a guy whose day job is tailoring and who isn’t Alexander McQueen.
But the true heart and soul of the show remains the Pierce family, including Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams), the only other person that knows of Jefferson’s superhero past and whose slow-burn romance with him only highlights the chemistry between Williams and Adams. This family’s dynamics power the show much more than a suited Black Lightning ever could.
A definite must-watch.
Black Lightning is now on Netflix Asia. Catch the newly released Episode 2 as well, that doesn’t disappoint either.