There are NO SPOILERS in this Black Lightning review!
Black Lightning Episode 1
There are many elements of Black Lightning that will set it apart fom the rest of The CW’s superhero line-up when it premieres this Tuesday: Rather than an origin story, it is about a middle-aged man returning to a life of crime-fighting after a nine-year break. It is a superhero story that confronts not simply crime, but the institutions and systemic oppressions that create and support it. And, most importantly, it is unabashedly black.
This shouldn’t be a revelation, but, in a pop culture landscape overrun with superhero TV shows and movies, Black Lightning is the rare narrative that gives a black man, and the black community around him, center stage.
This isn’t simply a story about Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), high school principal, father, and superhero. It is about his two daughters: 20-something activist and medical student Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and teen rebel Jennifer (China Anne McClain). It’s about ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams), trying to hold her family together amidst the violence that surrounds them. It’s about Freeland, a community struggling to keep its population safe from gang violence on one side and police brutality on the other.
In the middle of this struggle stands Jefferson Pierce, a former vigilante who left his psychedelic costume behind nine years ago in favor of becoming a different kind of superhero: an educator and administrator. When the violence of The One Hundred, a local gang, begins to encroach on Pierce’s school, endangering the lives of his students and his daughters, Pierce begins to reconsider his superhero retirement.
The CW has rarely created a superhero world this developed and mature from the get-go. The Black Lightning pilot reminded me more of Friday Night Lights than any of the Arrow-verse shows. This is no doubt down to its showrunners, Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil (The Girlfriend, The Game, Being Mary Jane), who are using the superhero genre to explore the kinds of topical, vital issues the Arrow-verse goes out of its way to avoid.
In the first episode, Jefferson is pulled over and harrassed by the police for driving while black. In that moment, it doesn’t matter what kind of superpower Jefferson has; he is still living in a world where institutional power, and the racism that usually comes with it, exists. The first two episodes’ best parts come not in Jefferson Pierce’s confrontations with physical threats, but his standing up to systemic injustices that are less corporeal. (Not that the two are always mutually exclusive.)
Black Lightning gets the requisite CW youth factor in with daughters Anissa and Jennifer. It is Jennifer’s voiceover that introduces us to this world and her father, as they wait to pick up Anissa from the police station where she is being held after being arrested for protesting peacefully. It’s Jennifer’s visit to a club frequented by The One Hundred gang that first convinces Jefferson to reassume the mantle of Black Lightning, a superhero with the power to project electrical bolts.
Meanwhile, Anissa defends her decision to protest the rise of that same gang (in footage that calls to mind real-life protests against police brutality more than anything else). By having two generations so actively involved in this superhero fight, we get to see the benefits of both. While Jefferson may bring the wisdom and experience of having fought the fight of injustice for a few decades now, Anissa and Jennifer’s raw anger provide the reminder that the status quo is not OK.
Black Lightning struggles a bit to make its superhero sequences as interesting and vital as its more grounded, character-driven moments (despite some truly inspired musical accompaniment), though there is hope for some high-stakes superhero showdowns with Jefferson’s long-time nemesis Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III). We can wait. We have tons of visually-clever, but ultimately thematically empty superhero fights in the zeitgeist right now to marvel at. I’d rather this show get its characters, setting, and stakes right—and it delivers on all of those fronts.
At the DC in D.C. event last weekend that saw Black Lightning‘s premiere screening, Salim Akil told those gathered: “I’m probably the angriest black man in Hollywood right now … I don’t need to tell you all about the world. You know what it looks like right now, and it starts to look a little crazier and crazier each day.”
“I’m a very sensitive person and it affects me everyday,” continued Akil. “I can’t help but put it in my work because I feel like what I’m doing is a blessing. It’s something that not a lot of people get to do, and so maybe this is the wrong way to think about it, but I do feel a responsibility to talk about certain things. I still want to entertain, I still want people to have fun … but, when you’re given an opportunity in these times, I just felt like, man, I’ve gotta say something.”
Time to listen, superhero fans.
Black Lightning premieres Tuesday, January 16th at 9 p.m. ET.