Black Lightning and the lasting impact of The Burning Zone

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Jul 25, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

Art often imitates life — the good parts, but also the bad and the ugly. Including those parts into art mediums can often be used as a tool to bring attention to a particular subject and to provide commentary that isn’t confined to a textbook, and even introduce new experiences, concepts, and ideologies to those that may have never learned of them otherwise. Science fiction has never shied away from using the bad and ugly sides of life to help create the stories that are told within genre. By highlighting some of society's shortcomings and atrocities, science fiction makes sure that uncomfortable life experiences don’t get lost in ahistorical retellings of history.

One show that did just that was The Burning Zone, which aired on what was then known as the UPN and based many of its episodes on conspiracy theories. Starring The Walking Dead's Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as well as Tamlyn Tomita (The Day After Tomorrow) and James Black (NCIS: New Orleans), the series followed a government task force assigned to investigate chemical and biological threats. In the one-season series' Episode 4, "Arms of Fire," The Burning Zone touched on the history of the medical field's usage of black and brown bodies to further its research.

The episode opens on two black students playing a game of pick-up basketball in a high school gymnasium. One of them seems to catch fire in front of the other before ultimately bursting into flames. The science team is later brought in after another student spontaneously combusts at the same high school. It’s learned through the questioning of a witness that there was some kind of flu going around the school that was quickly cured by a drug provided by a pharmaceutical company. The team of scientists soon figure out that the drug is linked to the spontaneous combustion. Not only was the pharmaceutical company aware of this fatal side effect the entire time, but they also created the strain of flu virus that infected the students and faculty at the high school. The company is accused of purposely targeting this school because it was in a lower income area, something they don’t deny.

The Burning Zone cast

This episode really freaked me out as a child. For weeks I had terrible anxiety about spontaneously combusting while walking to gym class in a single file line. The storyline probably wouldn’t have gotten to me so much if I hadn’t just learned about Henrietta Lacks, or how Puerto Rican women were used to test the birth control pill. With the knowledge of what medical professionals had done to people of lower economic status, black individuals specifically, of course an episode like "Arms of Fire" would stress me out. It felt disturbingly similar to the Tuskegee experiments, which involved U.S. Public Health secretly infecting black men from an impoverished area of Macon, Alabama with syphilis. They never treated the men with penicillin, even after it was proven that the antibiotic successfully treated syphilis. 

Although The Burning Zone was a scripted show, seeing something so eerily familiar play out on my TV screen brought things full circle for me at that young age. The stories from family members, and their reluctance to go to the doctor or take medication, made sense. I was already extremely interested in science, and this made me even more curious. That curiosity grew out of the hope that perhaps one day I could help prevent such atrocities from continuing to happen. Lofty goals for a 10-year-old, I know.

When I was asked about what I thought I wanted to do when I got older, I frequently referenced that episode and what I knew of the U.S. government funding of medical experiments on black and brown citizens. More recently, I’ve been able to reference another show that uses the very same history to create a new origin story for a black superhero. 

The CW's Black Lightning infuses the documented history between black communities and the medical field in telling the origin story of Jefferson Pierce. In this case, the government wanted to make the town of Freeland more docile to prevent political unrest in the community. When the offspring of the vaccinated individuals started exhibiting metahuman abilities, government agency A.S.A. began getting rid of them. Jefferson’s grandfather received the vaccinations, and while his father didn’t have any metahuman abilities, Jefferson does. By introducing an origin involving so many historical and cultural influences, Black Lightning exposes viewers who may have known nothing about the untrusting relationship between black people and medical agencies. It's eye-opening for younger viewers especially, who may have just learned about the human drug trials that were conducted by U.S.-funded studies for decades.

There of course have been countless sci-fi films, movies, comics, books and video games to feature government agencies experimenting on unsuspecting individuals and communities. But for me, The Burning Zone had an eye-opening impact. Spontaneously combusting teens will do that. 

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