Black Lightning is the fifth DC Comics superhero show to premiere on the CW, and if you’ve seen the previews for it, you’re probably guessing it’s business as usual. While in some aspects Black Lightning is more of what have we come to expect from its sister shows—the main character’s costume does look a bit Party City, and everyone is impossibly attractive—it also bucks the notion of what these shows have been until now, and forges important new ground. Because of this, Black Lightning stands apart, and in almost all positive ways.
For starters, unlike Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl before it, Black Lightning is not an origin story. The how and why of Jefferson Pierce’s electrical powers and life fighting crime are never once discussed. At this point in his story, the origin of his powers is not really relevant; we learn in the pilot that Black Lightning was once a superhero years ago before giving it up after nearly dying. As such, this isn’t a birth story, but a rebirth story, and it’s not really one we’ve ever seen in the modern era of superhero media.
Secondly, this is the story of a middle aged man, not a fresh-faced twenty-something just starting out in life (who can somehow afford the world’s most luxurious apartment). Actor Cress Williams, sexy though he may be, is pushing 50. His character is divorced and has two grown kids. He’s already been through serious turmoil in his life. I can’t think of a single superhero show on the air that has ever come at it from this perspective, and it is also very refreshing.
And third, and obviously and most importantly, Black Lightning is the only one of these CW superhero shows that is dealing with the issues of racial inequality, profiling, urban crime, and police brutality in this country. The protests in Ferguson are all over the script of Black Lightning‘s first episode, even if the name of the city in question is changed to Freedland. In an era when so much of our escapist entertainment is running from the social problems we face collectively, it’s nice to see at least one show tackle them head on, and all while still being a fun superhero story.
The pilot episode opens with high school principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), picking up his daughter Anisa out of jail after she was arrested for protesting the upswing in gang crime in their hometown Freedland. Despite the fictional nature of the show’s setting, Black Lightning establishes itself as a superhero show that is taking place in a version of our world, with all of its injustices intact—a characteristic that distinguishes it from the rest of the CW lineup, where such injustices seem not to exist.
On a rainy night, on the way home from picking up his daughter Anissa from jail and with his younger teenage daughter Jennifer in tow, Jefferson Pierce is pulled over by rude police officers who handcuff him at gunpoint and parade him in front a woman in the backseat of a police car whose liquor store has been robbed. Jefferson is cleared when the woman doesn’t recognize him, and Pierce realizes the only reason he was pulled over and treated so grotesquely was because he was black.
Although he doesn’t use his electrical powers on the cops, despite clearly thinking about it and causing a little bit of electricity in the air, the narration tells us this is the moment Black Lightning was reborn. It’s the most powerful “becoming a hero” moment in any of these TV series so far, because it is rooted in something that thousands have gone through and will continue to go through.
The rest of the episode deals with Jefferson Pierce finally reaching his breaking point over the rampant crime in his community and deciding to return to vigilanteism, despite a promise he had made to himself. His wife left him because of it the first time around, and although he desperately wants her back, he’s charged with a sense of duty, especially when his own family becomes threatened by the issues in question.
Cress Williams is totally convincing as an educator and a father, and he is sure built well enough to play a superhero. The rest of the show’s cast is just as great, including China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams as his daughters Jennifer and Anissa. The standout, however, is Christine Adams as Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn, who, unlike so many TV “exes,” is portrayed with subtlety and humor and grace. You are rooting for Jefferson and Christine to get back together from the moment they share the screen for the first time.
Dexter fans will be happy to see actor James Remar, who seems to be Jefferson’s “man in the chair,” but we don’t learn anything about their history in this pilot (which is a little annoying). The villains, namely crime lord Tobias Whale (a character straight from the comics) and his minions are more than a little cliche, but don’t yet promise to grab too much of the series’ focus.
Right now, Black Lightning is not only the most important superhero television show on the air, its already one of the most enjoyable, and I encourage fans who love the other CW comic book shows to do themselves a favor and check it out.
Black Lightning airs Tuesday nights at 9pm on the CW
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Images: The CW