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Black Lightning is already telling the black superhero story the world needs

Contributed by
Jan 17, 2018

The first five minutes of The CW's Black Lightning feature a number of moments where you just know you've strapped in for a supernatural black-ass ride: the flippant drop of Strange Fruit preceding an all too familiar argument between a protective black father and his activist daughter wherein both Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer are quoted word-for-word; and an interloping police siren silencing all talks of freedom and how one goes about the slippery task of procuring it.

Much has been made about the lattermost scene — which points back to a recent incident with the police involving showrunner Salim Akil — that climaxes when Jefferson Pierce (aka Black Lightning) is thrown against the hood of his car on a rainy night with his daughter Jennifer in the passenger seat. The image is not uncommon for Black people of all ethnic background, class, or immigrant status, of all genders, loving whomever they love. So many conversations between us are left hanging in the sonic ripples of a siren. With fear of undeserved violence lumped in his throat, Pierce acquiesces to the badge and instructs Jennifer to do the same, while a seething anger rages behind his electrically charged eyes.

As a formative scene for the kind of show Black Lightning imagines itself to be, its opener is taut with the interlacing strands that will inform the rest of its first season. It portrays the embattled legacies of Black cross-generational activism, the disruptive force of surveillance upon Black people from a state run by demagogues, and the trauma that can be engendered in the space between. When speaking to Black Lightning's motivational thrust, Akil describes an ancestral — or, perhaps, divinely — bestowment. "I've been given a gift," Akil says in reference to the show he created alongside his wife Mara Brock Akil, "and I have to use it the way I think I'm intended to use it, to talk about the things I feel people need to talk about.”

 

The Akils must feel like people need to talk about the widening distrust Black people feel toward the police through an educated yet broken-ish family in the fictional city of Freeland. Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams) once donned the mantle of Black Lightning before hanging up the ol' goggles to be a present father, husband, and principal of Garfield High School. It isn't until a few frustrating run-ins with police and a violent gang called The 100 tormenting Jennifer and her older sister Anissa (not to mention a separation from his wife Lynn) that Pierce contemplates returning to the superhero gig.

That torment comes in the form of Will, a no-name member of The 100 whose incessant coming on to Jennifer at a nightclub turns ugly after a run-in with his immediate boss (and cousin) Latavius, aka La-La. Just after Jennifer drops Will to all fours thanks to a carefully placed knee to the nuts and bolts, Pierce realizes that his daughter is in danger and — by tracking her through her cellphone, which could become a problem later in the season — shows up to the club and unceremoniously zaps everyone into oblivion.

La-La and Will get away, though the little tormentor's bruised groin and ego didn't shake him enough to not to show his face at Garfield High the next day with a gun in plain sight. Pierce pretty much reminds Will that shooting his daughters in front of their entire school isn't the smartest gameplan. So Will restrategizes, grabs a few of his 100 homeboys and literally steals Jennifer and Anissa right outta their classrooms.

When Pierce finds out what happens, all of us — including reluctant ex-wife Lynn — know what time it is. With a suave cool that lacks the pretension of another seemingly smooth black TV superhero, Pierce says he's going "to get our girls" and it's really on and poppin'.

The Black Lightning suit is a little bulky and Williams performs stiffly in it. The flat, glowing neon blue and yellow thunderbolts on the front chestplate add a dash of color to an otherwise blah design. Like superhero costumes of old, Williams looks like he has some trouble right around the neck area. It seems like 360-degree movement is impossible. And those goggles, while they are a part of Black Lightning quintessential look in the comics, make for a big yikes on screen. It's very likely the suit will have some upgrades over time — both The Flash and Arrow's costumes evolved as part of the plot — so we'll have to see what grace Black Lightning receives in that area.

Despite these limitations, Williams performs action sequence reasonably well, and what little we've seen of BL's electric manipulation powers he looks really dope using them, which is a huge plus given the name of the show.

 

Williams' Pierce is believably righteous but doesn't feel as morally rigid as, say, Daredevil, nor as utterly corny as Luke Cage. The longtime TV actor finds the sweet spot of relatable heroism that's largely lacking in other superhero shows of its ilk. More generally, the cast is thoughtfully selected, with Anissa and Jennifer both looking to step into prominence in the next few episodes, and hip-hop artist Krondon is perfectly cast as the ruthless, harpoon-toting Tobias Whale. Whale is going to be the Big Bad of the season and his megalomaniacal presence will start to be felt in the Pierces' lives much more directly starting next week.

There is another moment later in the episode that thematically harkens back to the first. This time, Pierce is functionally Black Lightning, facing off against two cops who are holding him up from saving his kids. This time, there is only the slightest hesitation before he shocks the cops straight out of their shoes and causes a small explosion inside their patrol car. This time, the answer to running onward to fleeting freedom is no longer the prospect of dead air, as there is little time for conversation or confusion.

Whether we are to believe Pierce acted only to save his family or if underneath the goggles he gathers some small satisfaction fighting off the avatars of his suppression, we can only assume how far the Akils and Black Lightning will take the pleasures of retributive justice. Given the rarity of black heroes being allowed vengeance, the first episode is an excellent start to a show that promises the full contours of an aged black hero.