The first episode of CW’s new superhero series Black Lightning is titled “The Resurrection.”
The new series in the Berlanti-verse distinguishes itself in many ways from the other superhero shows. One of the main ways it does so, right off the bat, is by featuring a superhero who, as the episode title might suggest, already existed prior to the first episode. This is a comeback story, not an origin one.
You thought I was going to write that it differentiated itself primarily by featuring a black superhero, didn’t you? Yes, it does that, and that fact of race does inform a lot of what goes on in the episode. But, I’m going to get to all of that. In my opinion, the way the milieu of the series is being set up may be an even more important factor in the future of the show.
I’m tired of origin stories. I like the fact that, at the beginning of this episode, Jefferson Pierce has been retired from the crime-fighting biz for over nine years. I like that he is a successful, more mature man, with grown children and an ex-wife. I like the fact that, as principal of Garfield High, an inner city school with a 90% graduation rate, he is a successful professional man, respected in the community for accomplishments that don’t necessarily include shooting lighting bolts from his fingertips. He is our first real adult superhero in the CW world of DC superheroes. Okay, maybe I’m not counting DC’s Legends of Tomorrow in that assessment. (I don’t count Legends in a lot of things, but that’s just my personal bias.) And, yes, Oliver Queen, Barry Allen and Kara Danvers are technically “adults,” I know, but they are usually characterized as “young” adults, and their actions on their respective shows are, at least early in their runs, on the immature side. I respect your opinions if you disagree with me; but, if you do, I will speculate that you are at least 20 years younger than I am.
So, while most reviewers will concentrate on the racial aspects of the show first, I will applaud the fact that we have our first 40-something superhero. Cress Williams, the actor playing Jefferson Pierce, is, in fact, 47 years old and in much better physical conditioning than I’ve probably ever been. The age factor alone is enough to make me happy to be an older superhero nerd.
But, let’s talk about the race thing.
It’s there, of course. It practically slaps you in the face in the name of the series. Black Lightning. Why “Black” Lightning? It’s not The White Flash or The White Supergirl. It’s not The White Arrow, either, but it’s not even The Green Arrow, so that might not be a great argument.
That’s not Greg Berlanti’s fault, though. Black Lightning is the name of the superhero in the DC Comics universe.
Unlike the Marvel Comics superhero Luke Cage (more on Cage in a bit), Black Lightning was at least co-created by a black man. Trevor Von Eeden moved to NYC from Guyana when he was 11 years old. Lightning’s other creator, Tony Isabella, is definitely not black, but seems to have had a penchant for creating African American superheroes. He also created Black Goliath over at Marvel Comics. There’s that “Black” thing again. Although I don’t really blame Isabella either. At the time all of these black superheroes were being created, they were a novelty. They were, in fact, groundbreaking, a sign of the changing times.
From the beginning, Black Lightning was both stereotypical and a character meant to break the mold. Jefferson Pierce wasn’t a street tough. He was an intelligent man, a former Olympic decathlete, who taught at an inner city school during the day and fought crime with his electricity-based powers during the night. Only, as part of his disguise, Jefferson’s mask had an afro attached to it, and he used a lot of street slang. Case in point:
At least this series seems to want to avoid that.
I think that it’s no accident that CW’s Black Lightning premiered the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and just a few weeks before the new MCU movie Black Panther debuts. DC is late in jumping on the racially motivated bandwagon. Marvel’s Luke Cage, over on Netflix, already successfully staked its claim, without having to have the word “black” in its title. I told you I’d get back to Luke Cage.
I couldn’t stop comparing this episode to the Netflix series while I was watching it. It seemed to be striving for the same tone, hitting a lot of the same notes, but doing it in a more family-friendly way like all of the Berlanti shows, without the over-the-top violence and cursing allowed by Netflix (even though the word “bitch” was used what was probably the maximum number of times allowed by the CW). In some ways, it was taking an even more potentially controversial tack, aiming at the Black Lives Matter crowd by directing some very pointed criticism at the police. Very early in the episode we see the results of Jefferson Pierce, in a tuxedo no less, being profiled by police and pulled over, with both of his daughters in the car, because a “black” man robbed a liquor store. Throughout the episode the police continue to be cast in a negative light, which is complicated by the fact that Pierce has a friend on the force, Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton), who also happens to be black, and we clearly see other black cops.
I’ve already pointed out that this isn’t an origin story. We don’t know how Jefferson became Black Lightning yet. But, in “The Resurrection,” we do discover what brings him out of retirement.
Jefferson retired his superhero persona because of a promise made to his wife, now ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), who was tired of seeing him hurt and bleeding. As the series opens, it becomes apparent that the two still love each other, and that Jefferson is holding out hope for a reconciliation. Keeping his promise to not mete out vigilante justice as Black Lightning is a part of that.
Life, as always, complicates things. As the episode opens, Jefferson is bailing his older daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) out of jail after she’s been arrested for taking part in a protest. Anissa is also a teacher at Garfield High and is taking classes at medical school, we’re told, but she is characterized as an activist. She also seems to think her father has turned his back on his community. His younger daughter Jennifer (China Anne McClain) is a student at the same school, tired of being called “Queen of Garfield High” just because her father is principal, and is, of course, rebellious. She ends up flirting with a low-level member of the series’ big street gang, known as The 100. Her actions lead eventually to her and her sister being kidnapped later in the episode, which brings Black Lightning out of retirement. What father wouldn’t use his electrical super-powers to save his daughters?
Several villains are being set up for the series. The 100 street gang seems to rule the streets of fictional Freedland. One of the street-level bosses, Latavius (William Catlett) is known by his street name “La La.” It was his relative who set off the entire chain of events by fixating on Jennifer Pierce at the club run by the gang, then causing a disturbance at Garfield High. Jefferson meets with La La, talking about the longstanding agreement they’ve had to keep the violence away from the high school. But La La, in his velour track suit, is not a good guy and doesn’t seem the type to abide by his word. La La’s boss is none other than Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III), whom I remember from the comics. He is an African-American with albinism, and there’s definitely a Moby Dick reference in the character name. He seems to be the Big Bad of the season, and he and Black Lightning have a past that I’m sure will be more completely revealed as the season continues.
I like what this episode manages to accomplish in terms of world-building and setting up future conflict. The cast of the series is almost entirely African American. There are exceptions. The police, of course. And, Jefferson Pierce’s mentor, a tailor named Peter Gambi (James Remar) who seems to be Black Lightning’s Alfred Pennyworth, at least in the first episode. He has a secret entrance to a lower level of his tailor shop, at any rate, and has apparently been trying to convince Jefferson to come out of retirement for years. He also creates the new Black Lightning superhero suit.
I will admit that I felt like the show was hitting the racial stuff a little too heavily at the beginning of the episode. After references to Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X (in the “by any means necessary” portion of their school motto) in the space of just a few seconds, so soon after the older daughter was arrested in a BLM-type protest and Jefferson himself was stopped by the police for what he said was the third time that month, I was mentally telling the show to slow down. We get it. Jefferson Pierce is a black man. I felt the same way at the beginning of the Luke Cage series, though. As with that series, these examples of the black experience in America become an integral part of the milieu of Freedland. I don’t fully understand the “black experience,” but I’m confident that husband-and-wife team, Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, the two main creative forces behind this show, do understand it. It seems so blatantly referenced to me because, as a middle-aged white man, this isn’t a routine part of my world. But, as with the Luke Cage series, the references seem to become secondary to the story itself.
The Garfield High segments of the episode remind me of every inner city school movie I’ve seen over the years. Lean On Me and Dangerous Minds leap immediately to mind, but there are many, many others. And the music chosen for the episode works very well. Hip Hop, ’70s Soul, alternative rock – artists from Nina Simone and Rome Fortune, to Jack White and Isaac Hayes. I liked it a lot.
By now, it should come as no surprise to you that I am intrigued by Black Lightning and intend to continue watching this season. Like the best of the Arrowverse, it demonstrates that it has a lot of heart. And the dynamic established in the premiere between Jefferson Pierce and his family and other series characters seems to hint at a myriad of potential storylines. This is one worth watching at the moment.