To say that series developers, husband and wife Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, had an uphill battle when they pitched the idea of a Black Lightning show would be an understatement. The titular forty-year-old electrified vigilante, created in 1977 by writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden, was DC Comics’ first African-American superhero, but suffered years of sparse mini-series and sporadic appearances since his debut, never reaching the level of popularity of his contemporaries. Black Lightning’s inclined demographic aside, the comic book/superhero genre has seen an unstoppable growth, with four superhero series airing weekly on the CW network alone, and newer ones appearing elsewhere. Much like its comic book struggles, Black Lightning had to prove itself and its relevance.
Set in the predominantly Black community of Freeland, the fictional backdrop acts as a reflection of other such communities across urban America going through similar social strife, where the “minority” are oppressed by both organized gangs, as well as an apathetic and racially prejudice judicial and law enforcement infrastructure. Depictions of police brutality on innocent Black people, entrenched corruption and the stranglehold drugs and gang activity have on such communities is touched on early on; though the series still manages to play it safe, by not delving too deep into social commentary. In addition, Freeland’s reaction to Black Lightning is nigh-religious – even Jefferson Pierce (portrayed by the talented Cress Williams) himself is referred to auspiciously as “Black Jesus” – as there are zealous supporters and vehement skeptics, those inspired by and fearful of our hero’s actions and motives, so there is a constant back and forth between vilifying and venerating him. All this helps authenticate the world these characters live in, rather than being a dispensable stage, so to speak, for self-important heroic antics. On a side note, the show’s decisive independence from the CW’s “Arrowverse” is a boon, allowing the series to exist without the added encumbrance of intertwining continuity. Many DC fans however will eternally debate this choice.
It has been nine years since Black Lightning last took to the streets as a hero of the people and became a living legend; and during that impromptu retirement, Jefferson Pierce has made peace with his past and tries to live a meaningful life outside of the costume and powers, by being a symbol and role model in his civil identity as principal of Garfield High. But as fate would have it, Jefferson’s relatively sheltered life is imposed upon, forcing him back into his old vigilante habits. He is accompanied by his two daughters, Anissa and Jennifer, played by the capable Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain respectively, as well as his ex-wife Lynn Steward, played by Christine Adams, whom he still pines over.
Foregoing a trite villain-of-the-week formula, this format allows the series’ premier bad guys to stand out and have gravitas and ambience, without being grandiose. In fact, the villains themselves have a relative “powerlessness” to them, whether physical, mental or otherwise. This, in a sense, makes them more real than other immaculate antagonists or bland and banal hero-fodder on other shows. We get the maniacal kingpin and arch-nemesis Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III); early departures Tori Whale (Edwina Findley) and diabolical deva Lady Eve (Jill Scott); and late bloomers Lala/Tattooed Man (William Catlett) and Khalil Payne/Painkiller (Jordan Calloway).
Another noteworthy performance throughout the first season is by the Alfred-esque Peter Gambi (James Remar), whose dark past and almost duplicitous nature plays a major role in the backstory of our hero and his hometown, adding a fresh and faceted depth to his relationship with our hero.
Initially, the show explores the ramifications of being an icon, and the responsibility that comes with it, as one’s good intentions can have disastrous consequences. However, halfway through the first season, there is a paradigm shift. Astute viewers will even notice the change in Cress’ dialog, from one about doing what is best for Freeland, to doing what is best for his family, as “Black Lightning” evolves into a man battling to protect his family, first and foremost, and the unfolding legacy and unsettling conspiracy that dates back even before his public appearance. Though aptly executed, the choice to have the major arc and pinnacle villain be a corrupt government operation, whose intention is the subjugation of Black people, may not have been the most appropriate plot given the current climate of tension and distrust palpable today. This is not helped by season one’s two-dimensional main antagonist Martin Proctor (Gregg Henry).
Overall, the show’s creators wisely chose to set their own path, rather than follow in the mold of similar shows, defying expectation. Like its hero, while the series may have originally began as a beacon of hope for the trials and tribulations endured by African-Americans through the lens of the citizens of Freeland, it matured from a social avenger and commentator, to became about a man who puts his family first, to be the best man he can be in whatever role he plays. Not all superheroes need to save a city or the world. They may just need to save the ones they love most and perhaps even themselves.
Black Lightning may not be the first Black superhero in any medium, but this new series is sufficiently entertaining, well appreciated and well executed, with endearing performances by its accomplished cast. And given the satisfying season one of Black Lightning, I am ecstatic to see how the Pierces rebuild their lives, and how much of a threat Tobias Whale will become, or who will lead the charge in seasons two. With the open-endedness of the season finale with respect to meta-humans, will we see elements and characters from the Milestone universe – probably not. I’d also appreciate more attention to the underdeveloped and underutilized inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton). Moreover, I’m looking forward to seeing Jennifer finally embrace her destiny and sport her own costume as Lightning. Speaking of costumes, I pray they revamp Black Lightning’s from that gaudy and bulky-looking neon bodysuit and into something more slick and appealing to look at.
Editors note: Check our our Season 1 Black Lightning reviews here.
Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or video games. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and video gamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.