When I was a little girl, my mother didn’t buy me clothes with white people on them. It was her way of making sure I didn't idolize the litany of white characters on television and in books. I never really noticed until I was older when I was shopping for my niece and was reluctant to the do the same (I literally made her Gryffindor gear with my bare hands. She raised a proper blerd, don't worry). As long as I had my Michael Jackson t-shirt or Care Bears nightgown, I was happy.
As I watched Black Lightning from the new CW superhero series and electrocute racist cops that told him to “get his black ass on the ground” and his daughters hold their own against their own personal villain, I felt my inner eight-year-old giggle with glee in a way she rarely had. Because I saw myself eagerly saving my allowance to buy a Black Lightning shirt instead of my Michael Jackson cards. Is this why kids love comic books? Because they get to see themselves and their stories reflected back and heightened by imagination and fantasy? Because it's so easy to envision themselves as the savior?
Based on DC Comics first black suphero series that debuting in 1977, Black Lightning centers on metahuman Jefferson Pierce, the do-gooding principal of a Freeland high school Freeland. Having abandoned his superherodom nearly a decade before, Freeland’s escalating gang violence and the ever-brazen power of the police all but forces Black Lighting to strike twice, if only to keep his daughters alive.
It’s not a coincidence that some fanboy critics are declaring the superhero crazy has already been fully saturated as Black Lightning and Black Panther gear up for their 2018 premieres because these franchises are going to be bigger and possibly better than expected. Black Lightning is as kinetic as the elemental force it’s named after, thanks to the writing and directing talents of Mara Brock-Akil and Salim Akil.
The producers of Being Mary Jane (the aggravatingly ignored, sophisticated BET series starring Gabrielle Union) are not strangers to bringing the complexities of black existence to television. And they aren’t dumbing their art down for the mainstream or going with the clichéd flow superhero origin stories. If anything, they’ve brought something you often don’t see in superhero series, especially ones that land on The CW: a nuanced swagger that renders the Lightning premiere one of the most exciting pilots that the network has ever aired. It makes The CW feel as young, provocative and woke as its been since the debut of Jane The Virgin in 2014. And it totally worked. Black Lightning is The CW's most successful premiere in two years.
The world of Black Lightning and Freeland feels frighteningly real without being preachy or campy. It shows the volatile combination of players that are all vying for power: the low-level drug lords using kids and sex trafficking to rise through the ranks and the masters they serve. Tobias Whale (the striking Marvin 'Krondon' Jones III) is this season’s big villain and his introduction maybe one of the most spectacular, bizarre and visually-enthralling scenes since Mahershala Ali’s Cottomouth stood in front of a portrait of Notorious B.I.G in Marvel’s Luke Cage.
By the time Jefferson Pierce is outfitted in his upgraded Black Lighting suit—thanks his American Alfred a tailor named Gambi who has a secret lair—one thing is abundantly and refreshingly clear: Jefferson Pierce is not the aww-shucks, heart-of-gold superhero audiences have seen again and again on the The Flash and Arrow, who won’t kill or lie because of their righteous morality. Black Lightning was forged out of rage, oppression, fear, compulsion to protect his family and community by any means necessary. Now, it is completely understandable why this grittier show won't touch the problematic, Nazi-sullied #Arrowverse anytime soon, per CinemanBlend.com.
Veteran actor Cress Williams (Living Single, Hart Of Dixie, Code Black) instills Jefferson Pierce with a hesitant yet dark satisfaction of being able to fight back with all the fire and muster and rage from a lifetime of oppression and injustice. And there is something energizingly poetic about a black man who only draws power from the kind of electricity that flows from a cop’s taser.
Breaking even more rules, Black Lightning isn’t wasting a second to drop some thunderous black girl magic. Jefferson Pierce’s daughters, Anissa and Jennifer, are forces of nature in their own rights. Jennifer, played China Anne McClain (The Descendants, The Paynes) and Anissa (Nafessa Willaims) are nothing remotely close to damsels in distress. When the high school track superstar and wild-child is accosted by a low-level drug dealer, she gets the line of the night: “I actually thought you were cute until I found out you were somebody’s bitch.”
Her older sister Anissa, dubbed “Harriet Tubman” for her political activism and coddling of her younger sister, gets to kick that same drug dealer’s ass—in pink heels no less—and later taps into a monstrous strength she never knew she had. This is foreshadowing for Anissa’s eventual turn as Thunder to compliment her dad's Black Lightning. These girls kick ass without pink pussy hats or obnoxiously calling out their girlpower and feminism. Black women, after all, are no strangers to the metaphorical and physical fight to survive.
Everything about Black Lightning is sublimely charged with talent, passion, inclusion and a multi-faceted message of identity, race and the need for change that somehow doesn’t lose the magic and swagger that comes with its comic book origins. Even still, the pilot just feels like the calm before the storm. Grade: A
What did you think of Black Lightning? Hit up the comments section below!
Photo Credits: The CW
Small Screen Girl
I am an unabashed pop culture and TV-aholic with no plans to ever seek treatment. Explore this blog and see just how deep my obsession goes.