It’s finally here: Black Lightning, the first CW DC Comics show with an African American lead, starring Cress Williams as school principal Jefferson Pierce, the once and future superhero of the title. The pilot is refreshingly different from every other cape show on the network, beautifully shot and incredibly confident as a reflection of modern black America.
1. “Strange Fruit”
This show is unapologetically black from the start, with Nina Simone’s rendition of the chilling Billie Holiday song greeting us when we meet Jefferson and his daughter Jennifer, who are waiting at the police station for her older sister, Anissa, who has been arrested at a protest. On the TV, they watch footage of the incident, which eerily recalls footage of Ferguson, Missouri, yet describes a situation more reminiscent of cities like Baltimore or Chicago. On the way home, Pierce is pulled over by the police, an all-too familiar situation that has led to some tragic outcomes.
It was powerful seeing Jefferson briefly use his powers to brush off ignorant cops. I hate to already compare this show to Luke Cage, but this episode showed how bafflingly unequipped that series was when it came to exploring the issue of police brutality. And if that wasn’t enough, the episode also raises the specter of another sadly familiar problem in America, namely firearm murders at school.
2. Not your typical DC CW show
Black Lightning‘s rainswept cold open is a statement of intent, that this is not another DC CW show. From the extended use of news interviews, to the cell phone texts displayed on screen (which are closer to the narrative boxes of modern comics than Sherlock), the imagery in Black Lightning is a class above The Flash et al. The directorial flourishes continue throughout the episode, from the strong use of overhead cameras, to the distinct black-and-white flashbacks, where only Jefferson’s wounds are in color.
Then there’s Black Lightning’s costume itself: the promotional materials didn’t do this suit justice, it’s absolutely gorgeous, it actually glows. At some point, you realize Black Lightning doesn’t need to crossover with the network’s other shows: those shows need to crossover into Black Lightning.
3. A fragile hero
Pierce is not bulletproof like Marvel’s black lead, which gave an urgency and tension to this show, especially when the character was confronted by racist cops (before you realized they were armed with tasers, not pistols). Every time someone points a gun at Pierce, you fear for him, which makes Freeland feel all the more like part of the real world, and all the more satisfying when it’s revealed his suit has strategically placed protection.
4. It’s for grown-ups
For a show about a teacher with a family, who is sarcastically dubbed Black Jesus at one point (it is the resurrection after all), Black Lightning is a pretty dark and violent affair. Despite trying to his best to reach out to delinquent youths, Black Lightning is also unafraid to use a human shield against gunfire. Then there’s Jennifer calling her sister a “bitch”: and I thought the sex references on The Flash season one were strong.
Though American primetime television can be quite adult in general, it is something of a shame to consider that some parents may consider this show unsuitable for kids and thus deprive them of an otherwise inspirational hero. I’m not faulting the showrunners for making the show so gritty, but I think it’s important to take into consideration the lack of black superheroes in media who really are for kids. There have to be more opportunities to hear real heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer being namedropped.
It’s testament to how strong, and how well made this show is that I was already expecting to start the next episode. There are only 13 episodes in this season, which means we’ll be seeing more of our big bad Tobias Whale, and Anissa developing her powers, sooner than later. Surprisingly, Lala survived this episode, which implies he’ll be back next week seeking revenge. I’m also keen to find out whether Will’s brush with Black Lightning will kickstart a redemption arc. Well, we’ll find out next week: looking forward to it.