Back in 2016 when I first heard that DC and the CW were going to push forward with a Black Lightning pilot I was excited and cautious. Though I am not a fan of Arrow and I support Supergirl on principle, I thoroughly enjoy The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow and felt like it was possible they might be able to pull of this show. I was especially interested after Marvel’s Luke Cage proved simply fantastic in tone and personality. Of course, what Luke Cage had working in its favor that Black Lightning wouldn’t is that, being a streaming show on Netflix, Luke Cage can go where Black Lightning can’t on broadcast primetime network television. Censors will only allow so much. I said to myself and others: “They better get this right because if they don’t it’ll be a disaster”.
For those of you new to this character, Black Lightning was co-created by Tony Isabella with artist Trevor Von Eedon for DC comics. Isabella had experience writing Luke Cage (Power Man) at Marvel and in 1977 Black Lightning hit the shelves. He is a high school principal in Suicide Slum, the wrong side of the tracks in Metropolis, by day and by night he uses his electric superpowers (originally using a belt that gave him powers which was later written out to make him “naturally” super powered). He has two grown daughters who also have powers and hasn’t really been prominently placed for long stretches of time in the DC Universe. Most notably, when Lex Luthor was elected President in a Simpsons-like prediction of the 2000 election close call and the 2016 election of a billionaire super villain, Black Lighting in his secret identify of Jefferson Pierce was appointed Secretary of Education. Additionally during the late, great Dwayne McDuffie was a member of the Justice League. Somewhat importantly, when Static (who is not related) was shown to idolize Black Lightning, hanging a poster of the hero in his Teen Titans Tower quarters.
Other than that, I’d be hard pressed to say what Black Lightning’s most vital contribution has been to the DC Universe. Since the announcement of the show, the 2016 election and the continued rise of the Alt-Right has changed the landscape of media discourse and discussion. Any character presenting a minority perspective in movies and television is immediately attacked as being propaganda of the liberal agenda. The latest three installments of Star Wars have been lambasted by incels and other alt-righters as pushing a feminist agenda, for example. The inclusion of Finn and Rose–apparently as a couple–is another source of ire. Complaints about Luke Cage having “no white people” in it were ubiquitous. White supremacy has been trying to paint growing equity in media as their own oppression. This compounded with the reception of the silent protest of NFL players kicked off by Colin Kaepernick during the National Anthem, rhetoric against the BLM movement, and varied instances of police brutality, riots, and the shooting of unarmed men like Philando Castile and Michael Brown, the tone that Black Lightning has to strike must be either expressly political and topical–as Luke Cage is–or completely averse to or subtle in social commentary–as The Flash often is. Black Lightning is engaging, intense, and political from its first moment until its last. I won’t spoil the details but it immediately comments on the criminalization of protest, gang activity, racial profiling, and highlights a smart, educated, successful black family at its center.
It is clear which path of social commentary that producer Salim Akil chose for the series–and chose well. The characters are complex, interesting, flawed, and human. They are expressed in dialogue that is edgy, authentic, and most importantly strong–we must forgive passing moments of hokeyness as a hazard and hallmark of the superhero soap opera. These are characters who are motivated, driven, and self actualizing in a world that judges them based on the color of their skin and not the content of their character. The show spotlights complex, powerful personas that have nothing to do with Jefferson Pierce’s electric superpowers. While as father, Jefferson Pierce encourages the non-violence of Dr. King, as principal he teaches his students to live their lives “by any means necessary”–the famously quoted creed of Malcolm X. This dichotomy should not be overlooked as intellectual concept dropping…these are the mixed messages of an empowered man with double lives. He is the face of a community and also a masked hero. Commenting on family, Black Lightning flies in the face of many critical and often false narratives and character arcs we are commonly presented with not only of black men and their families, but of all adults and their families in 2018.
Where other media presentations will have promiscuous separated parents and fatherless homes, Jefferson pines for his ex-wife and shares custody of two daughters. Rather than playing the Lothario, encouraged by some comic relief best friend, he dreams of reunifying his family and confides this openly and proudly. Though divorced, his super hero persona has been retired for almost a decade on a promise to his wife—a promise he is determined to keep. Jefferson Pierce has chosen instead to be a present father and community leader rather than a super powered martyr. Black Lightning is a man who seeks to be whole rather than wallowing in his brokenness. This is a powerfully refreshing concept in an age of brooding and dour super heroes. Taking place in the fictional city of Freeland and its suburbs, the show trades the traditional home of Black Lightning in Metropolis’ Suicide Slum for what appears to be an analogue of Baltimore, or perhaps Chicago, and their suburbs. Lala, the local gang general for big bad Tobias Whale, is the focus villain in the first episode and is just as complex as the shows protagonist.
He’s a former student at Pierce’s school who sends a mixed message of well spoken mock respect and vicious street crime–advocating in one hour of television for the sale of narcotics, forced prostitution, murder as well as maintaining eye contact with elders and shaking hands. He justifies his stance twice in one scene telling a young boy that the white boys he sells to are being groomed to own the world while he squanders his time playing video games and telling Black Lightning that he’ll educate kids in his own way. This narrative has the authenticity of a grim and pragmatic street perspective that has been down trodden and defeated by the pitfalls and hurdles in the way of the achievement of so many. The show has a clear perspective and narrative that it wishes to share–it has discussions with itself in complex character interactions and backstories.
While still having one magical Mary Sue white guy Alfred Pennyworth type and pretty graphic and violent action, the show somehow overcomes the silliness of a guy in, what it admits itself, is essentially a Parliament stage outfit. In the past almost twenty years since Smallville television special effects and make up have skyrocketed, which plays no small part in this particular triumph. The show looks good, and feels good. It is nothing short of thrilling and, as an educator its quite a break to see a positively framed Principal who isn’t secretly Captain Underpants or a buffoonish Mr. Belding. Jefferson Pierce is an educator with a mission: his students’ well being is the top priority. In one scene, Pierce states that he’s saved more lives as a principal than Black Lightning ever could. While that remains to be seen as the series progresses, it is wonderful to see a public school educator portrayed in such a light considering the scape coating and vilification we have endured in recent years. While I can probably can guess what the Alt-Right narrative about this show is, I’m masochistically interested to know what creatively vile things they have say about it. Any trip to the comments section on YouTube will show you the kinds of inventive hate comments I’m talking about.
Recently, I had some of these trolls visit my own public Facebook page, and they used a word which was so obscure and gross I had to look it up. I can imagine that the thesaurus over at Brietbart has many creases in its spine with an insult bench deep for its core demographic to absorb—likely one full of additional dog whistle phrases and code words as well. And they’ll certainly have plenty of opportunities to use that varied and disgusting vocabulary to describe this show because it has all the trappings of a hit. You can feel it in the first 5 minutes of the first episode and you can ride that lightning all the way to the Gil Scott Heron tune that comes unexpectedly and appropriately at the end. With Luke Cage Season 2 on the horizon and Black Panther coming next month from Marvel, Black Lightning feels like nothing short of a coup for DC who has in their movies struggled to find a relevant and gritty niche to resonate with today’s jaded and fickle audiences. Hopefully, DC will keep the momentum going and launch a solo comic title because Black Lightning has arrived and it is nothing short of phenomenal.