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With Akils At The Helm, ‘Black Lightning’ Delivers What ‘Luke Cage’ Promised

So, I’m a little annoyed with my black nerd self at the moment.

How did I not know that Black Lightning (The CW) would be any good? How dare I have doubted this thing.

I held the show somewhat suspect, in that I had no idea whether Greg Berlanti’s enterprise could handle race content well, given the hit-and-miss stuff on the other DC Universe shows.

Diggle is one of the great characters on Arrow, but he doesn’t seem particularly black in any way, similar to Joe and Iris West on The Flash. Supergirl sidelined James Olsen from a romance with Kara Danvers (a double-take on an “interracial” couple) after season one, and turned him into the non-compelling, badly costumed Guardian.

Jefferson Jackson, the black half of Firestorm, and Amaya, the original Vixen, have gotten more depth on Legends of Tomorrow. We could stand to have more from them, still; time traveling while black must have its own wrinkles beyond that time they went to an antebellum plantation.

I also didn’t give the show a deep look because I figured I’d watch it anyway, just to see what they’ve done. And, I must admit, the “Get Lit” tag made me groan. Even though, really, what would have been better? “Power Up”? (Wait; that might have been better…)

Watching the debut episode as strains of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” played, I was quickly reassured. “Strange Fruit” right off the bat?

We’re so, so far from The Flash.

Two names appeared on screen as co-creators that let me know all would be well: Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil. They’re the writer-producer-director duo behind some of most well-regarded black TV shows in the 21st century: Girlfriends, The Game, and Being Mary Jane.

What happens when you put the Akils on Black Lightning, a character I know only as gimmicky, a lame 1970s attempt at a black character by white authors? (He’s a second black DC superhero named Jefferson, for god’s sake.) A character that only in the past 10 years or so has DC Comics attempted to rehab?

Then add to the mix the fervor for competitor Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther film and current Luke Cage series, plus an uptick in quality, black-centered TV shows. Of course DC Comics and Warner Bros. want a piece of that.

So what do we get from the Akils?

We get a black superhero TV show has all the signifiers of Luke Cage but adds family drama, conflicting politics, and more fully drawn, more lived-in community and characters. You get structured, episodic TV that still rattles with cliffhangers in what, so far, has been a single story.

To me, the show’s setup begins with one question: What does it mean to be named Black Lightning?

You have the obvious: black man who shoots lightning out of his hands. But what is the significance of black in his name? If Black Lightning’s blackness is the first thing about him, how does his blackness inform who he is?

In these first few episodes of Black Lightning, the showrunners rightly hit on the fact that Jefferson Pierce’s black identity and character is as communal as it is personal. A community activist turned charter school principal, Jefferson is a leader of such stature that he is nicknamed “Black Jesus.”

Image via Marc Hom/The CW

People look to him to be a savior of their children, to work miracles where hope has faded, to suffer when they suffer. And he does, whether in his suit and tie or in his Black Lightning suit of electrified armor.

These early episodes have spent a lot of time on establishing the city of Freeland. It’s a place where almost nothing is fair; people are killed in capricious fashion, whether gangs or police. A place where bad things happen to people on the regular, a forgotten city of decline and racist neglect. Even the name, Freeland, suggests a history of slavery, emancipation, migration.

Black Lightning keeps hitting on the idea that your past always follows you, an idea that encapsulates much of the black American experience. The show begins with Jefferson in his 40s, years removed from when he last donned his superhero guise. As the 100 Gang runs rampant and the body count keeps rising, the people of Freeland keep asking when Black Lightning will return to protect the streets.

Image via The CW

Jefferson has to deal with the public repercussions of his personal choices. He retired Black Lightning in an attempt to keep his marriage together and family intact, after he came home bloodied and wounded too many times. Police pull Jefferson multiple times in a week because he “fit the description,” but he’s the one who has to keep himself in check.

He sets up truces with the gangs to keep them out of his school, but the old rules aren’t working anymore. Some of his former students return to Jefferson with new troubles. And one of his old students, Latavius aka Lala, is now a lieutenant in the 100 Gang. In a tense scene, Jefferson and Lala show similar values of self-respect, but from completely opposite ends of the law.

As the show begins, he and his wife, Lynn, are estranged but co-parenting their two daughters. Anissa is the older daughter, a protesting firebrand who teaches at her father’s school. Jennifer, however, the brash troublemaker whose bad choice partying with 100 Gang members kicks off the chain of events that lead to Black Lightning ending his retirement.

Image via The CW

The show keeps ratcheting up the pressures on Jefferson, both in Freeland and within his own family. He has spent years out of the costume, trying to do the right thing by his wife and daughters, by standing in the light as a respectable educator and civic leader.

Black Lightning also can’t keep itself off its star, Cress Williams, for long. The camera uses Williams’ 6-foot-5 frame to inform the character and fill the frame. In an emotional scene during which a former student pleads with Jefferson to help rescue her daughter from being pimped out by the 100 Gang, the reaction shots keep Williams’ side in the shot as the mother looks up to his face, which remains out of frame.

In the Black Lightning suit of body armor and lit-up chestplate, Williams is even more massive. He crouches into doorways, crushes cars he leaps onto. Sparks fly and the lights go out when he arrives.

Image via The CW

He’s got swag!

At the heart of the show’s family drama, Black Lightning also is able to mine Jefferson and Lynn’s estranged relationship for drama without turning Lynn into a no-fun nag. She has all the reasons in the world not to want Jefferson to be Black Lightning anymore. Why would she want to see her husband wounded, or worse, again as a vigilante?

The show even depicts Jefferson debilitated after a night of heroics. Lynn, a neuroscientist, wonders whether Jefferson’s powers are addictive. What if Jefferson’s electricity powers affect and rewire his brain like drugs do? Or is Jefferson being pushed into being Black Lightning by Gambi, a white tailor who took in young Jefferson after his father was murdered, and acts as Alfred to Jefferson’s Bruce?

Yet Lynn remains torn. When her daughters are threatened, she condones Jefferson suiting up to protect them. She is attracted to Jefferson and his powers, and she used to see them as a gift that Jefferson must use for Freeland.

Anissa, in the third episode, figures out that her superpowers manifest when she holds her breath. The sequence calls out to “I can’t breathe,” Eric Garner’s last words as a police officer choked the life out of him. That sentiment is transformed from victimhood and terror into strength and power, as well as giddiness when Anissa kicks a junked washer machine 20 yards.

The complexity of black characters in Freeland extends to the antagonists as well.

Crime boss Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), speaks with disdain of black people who considers to be beneath him or living up to stereotypes holding the race back. He calls them “Negroes” as if they’re as outdated as that term.

Image via The CW

The show draws on the in-canon detail of Whale being a black man with albinism to highlight issues of colorism. But that’s not enough in a comic book world. Black Lightning then torques Whale’s colorism with some perverted notion of the “talented tenth”: the idea, popularized by W.E.B. DuBois, that an elite group of black Americans would be the ones to lift up the race. And in a system built on plunder of black people, why can’t black folk have license to gain from plunder as well?

All that from a dude named Whale who harpoons a dude in the show and keeps a pair of mad-dog killers who look straight out of a Raid movie.

Inspector Henderson, friend to Jefferson Pierce and enemy to Black Lightning, is torn in several directions. He’s trying to save his community through the law when the system demonstrably has failed Freeland. He’s fighting corruption and racism within his own police force, and combating Black Lightning despite having to know deep down that the vigilante is necessary in a society that doesn’t care about black people.

Black Lightning bubbles with all these issues and interplay between the characters. It not only writes women who sound and act like real people, the show also casts black women in a range of skin tones as well as natural and processed hair. Its politics are nuanced while still asserting that Black Lightning is necessary; it is a superhero show, after all.

But unlike most other superhero fare, Black Lightning also pays attention to the people our hero protects.

In short, it’s all I expect from Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil.

I wonder how this show will function as a more conventional superhero show, if it ever moves to that. Will Black Lightning ever be connected to the other DC Comics shows?

Or might the Akils be given the reins to their own stable of superhero shows centered on people of color? Could it be Milestone reborn? If this is how they handle Black Lightning, imagine them on Static, or Icon and Rocket.

Turns out Black Lightning truly is the black superhero show television has been waiting for. I’m here to watch Jefferson Pierce glow.

Image via The CW

Get lit, indeed.

 

 

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