Black criminalization is at the center of Black Lightning Ep. 11: 'Black Jesus: Book of Crucifixion'

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Apr 3, 2018

WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Black Lightning Season 1, Episode 11: "Black Jesus: Book of Crucifixion."

Since its premiere, Black Lightning's broader social arguments have largely been articulated through Jefferson Pierce. Back then, it was a routine racist traffic stop that Black people all over America could attest to experiencing. Throughout its first season, Jefferson has dealt with corrupt police, a manipulative local media painting Black Lightning as a criminal, and the bureaucratic obstacles of running a public school as the Black face of a majority white school board.

His reputation takes another hit in "Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion" when Jefferson Pierce — and not Black Lightning — must deal with the process and embarrassment of criminalization. This episode, unlike most coming before it, has a tightly-focused, singular plot that sees a concerted effort from the entire Pierce family and Detecti... ahem, Deputy Chief Henderson to clear his name.

It's remarkable; between Anissa and Jennifer realizing their new powers, Gambi's betrayals and apologies, LaLa's Lazarus act, and the government's child experimentation conspiracy, it’s easy to forget how long Jefferson — and/or Black Lightning — has been on trial. Besides being seen as a vigilante (which is just standard street-level superhero fare) ever since Lady Eve's murder, wearing the Black Lightning mantle placed Jefferson in danger of being marked for bounty. That reality has given the surrounding characters more space to not only learn their importance in the larger grander scheme but to show up big in this episode which finally ends the Black Lightning manhunt.

"Book of Crucifixion" deals with the singular issue of Jefferson's criminalization quite well. As we learned at the end of last week's episode, Kara is a sleeper agent working for ASA and is now tasked with ridding the government agency of their Black Lightning problem. Proctor tells Kara that the ASA believes Jefferson Pierce and Black Lightning are one and the same.

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Credit: The CW

Despite her reluctance, she carries on like a good soldier, and hatches a plan to frame Jefferson for drug possession. She recruits two Freeland police officers to plant Green Light in his car (okay, but who knew Jefferson was driving a station wagon? It's 2018, at least a crossover SUV is in order?) and they arrest him in front of the entire school. With anger — and an eventual compliance — that harkens back to the premiere, Jefferson allows himself to be taken calmly while reassuring Jennifer and Anissa (who are both ready to throw down!) that things will be okay.

Jefferson's booking scenes make for perhaps Cress Williams' best work on the series so far. It's a quiet, humiliating look into how the booking process dehumanizes Black men who must, through frustration and despite innocence, maintain a level of composure. The camera lingers on Jefferson's hands when he gets them fingerprinted; on his face and his furled brow responding to the command to strip and cough. The entire ordeal reminds us of the powerlessness that even superpowered Black people face at the hands of the state.

It's a lesson that Lynn reiterates when Jennifer asks why her father can't just zap his way out of the prison. Doing so, she suggests, would place the entire family at risk. Instead, the Pierce family, Gambi, and Henderson have to devise a plan within the confines of a corrupt police department that doesn't involve Black Lightning at all. So that means Jefferson is sitting this one out.

But Gambi — after just half a day of finding materials he'd want us to emphasize — pulled together a projection device displaying Black Lightning in full motion. The plan is to fool the ASA into believing that Jefferson can't be a superhero because Black Lightning is running around saving the city while he sits in a jail cell. Meanwhile, Henderson — who knows the deviancy of the police better than anyone — turns one of the officers Kara recruited against the other, forcing him to confess to planting drugs in Jefferson's car. Everything pretty much works without a hitch, which seems rare on this show as there's usually something waiting just around the corner.

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Credit: The CW

As seamless as the respective plans went, remembering how long Jefferson has faced public scrutiny in the media and the very real prospect of being surveilled by the police reminds us of the concerted effort it takes to fend off notions of Black criminality. It took a whole season for Jefferson to gain a measure of protection from the forces looking to humiliate him. Having a singular episode focusing just on getting him off furthers the claim.

But for now, the family is back together. A bruised and battered Gambi joins the Pierce family dinner and even leads them in blessing the food, which is a huge promotion from the cold shoulder! This is the most together the main characters have been since the start and necessarily so. With two episodes left, an entire governmental agency, a shady police department and two charismatic gangsters on their tail, the Pierce family is going to need their concerted strength to survive.

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