#CW

Black Lightning is an Unequivocally Great TV Show

Usually social commentary in comics is done via metaphor - mutants are used as proxies for all people groups facing discrimination. There are no metaphors in Black Lightning - this show is absolutely diving head first into commentary about race relations.

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Cress Williams, as Jefferson Pierce (aka, Black Lightning)

 

Secondly, Black Lightning is an unequivocally great show. The pilot episode earned 2.31 million viewers and a 0.8/3 rating among adults age 18-49. Black Lightning is a show about family, race relations, marriage, urban decay, and social justice. And, ass kicking, lots and lots of CW-style ass kicking. The CW has become expert at wrapping family drama around superhero origin stories, and Black Lightning is no different in this regard. However, the exploration of social justice themes are very different for network comic book TV. Usually social commentary in comics is done via metaphor – mutants are used as proxies for all people groups facing discrimination. There are no metaphors in Black Lightning – this show is absolutely diving head first into commentary about race relations.

As the series begins, “The 100 Gang” is taking over a section of New Orleans. Residents are rightly losing faith in the city’s ability to fight crime. The city’s hero Black Lightning – whose given name is Jefferson Pierce – has retired from crime fighting. He is pretending to be a regular guy as the Principal of Garfield High School. Garfield High School is a ‘safe zone.’ There is an informal agreement between The 100 Gang and the City that no gang-related activities are to be conducted at Garfield High School. When we meet Jefferson he has not used his powers in nine years, as the safe zone that Garfield High School provides has allowed him to turn a blind eye to the crime that has spread since he retired from being Black Lightning. At the beginning of the episode we’re in the dark about the extent of Jefferson’s powers, how he got them, and why he stopped protecting his city. What follows in the pilot episode are partial answers to all of these questions.

The Black Lightning Cast from left to right: Christine Adam, Cress Williams, Nafessa Williams, and China Anne McClain

 

In a scene intentionally “ripped from the headlines,” Jefferson (played by Cress Williams) is pulled over by the police for “driving while black.” His daughters Anissa and Jennifer are in his car with him. His daughters scream in terror, as Jefferson is thrown violently against the hood of his Volvo. The police point guns at Anissa and Jennifer, and as a viewer you wonder which, if any of these innocent African Americans will be shot. This is the first act of violence we actually see in the series. The scene should remind viewers of the summer of 2017, where we wondered on a weekly basis if we were going to again see a smartphone video the police shooting a black man.  Ultimately, the officer in this scene ascertains that this is case of his own mistake and stupidity and he lets Jefferson and this daughters go unharmed. Jefferson is seething, however, and rightfully so. The 100 Gang are ripping his city apart and the police seem to be targeting the wrong people (i.e., him and his daughters). In this moment you can tell that Jefferson is conflicted. You can imagine that he wants to fight for men like Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and anyone victimized by either rogue officers or criminals, like The 100, yet we later learn that he’s promised his ex-wife that he’d stop fighting crime.

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As the episode progresses we learn that Jefferson is a single father. He lives in a gorgeous home. His ex-wife, Lynn, is beautiful and strong, and the terms of their relationship, and potential reconciliation, are very blurry. His family life is complicated. His eldest daughter, Anissa (played by Nafessa Williams), is socially conscious. She’s a medical student who teaches part time at Garfield High School. Jefferson and Anissa snap at each other constantly about Anissa’s desire to be a social activist, and Jefferson’s competing desire to keep her safe. When they argue, they fire quotes from civil rights icons at each other to prove their respective intellectual bonafides. Jefferson’s youngest daughter (Jennifer, played by China Anne McClain) is Garfield High School’s “it girl.” If Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl had a black girlfriend from New Orleans, it would be Jennifer Pierce. Jennifer and Jefferson fight a lot too. Jennifer vs. Jefferson is more about keeping Jennifer out of the cast of MTV’s 16 and pregnant, and Jefferson is obviously scared as hell that any minute he’s going to get a call from a producer at MTV. (We joke, sort of.) Jennifer is good natured but her main concern, at least in this pilot episode, is finding the next party.

 

Black Lightning’s Nafessa-Williams (left) and China-Anne McClain (right), play Black Lightning’s daughters on the CW show. Nafessa plays Anissa and China Anne plays Jennifer.

 

As Jennifer sneaks out to the “next party” things get interesting – and the storyline advances quickly toward Jefferson re-assuming the mantel of Black Lightning for good. Because she’s smart (insert sarcasm), Jennifer heads out to a club that is actually a front for The 100 Gang’s operations. In fact the club is called “Club 100.” At said club, Jennifer meets a low-level 100 Gang drug dealer named “Will.” While hanging with Will, Jennifer gets caught in the middle of a fight between Will and a captain of the “100 Gang”, called Latavius, aka Lala (played by William Catlett). It’s less of a fight and more like Will getting his ass kicked. Will happens to be Lala’s cousin, slash minion, and “Will” owes Lala some cash. Lala brainstorms that they kidnapped Jennifer and turn her into a sex worker to pay off Will’s debts. Lala establishes himself as a formidable menace very quickly. Lala is one of those villains whose diction is so perfect it’s scary, because you know that he will kill you with the same precision with which he speaks.

Just as things “stop being polite and start getting real” for Jennifer, Jefferson runs up into Club 100 to snatch his baby girl “out the party” by her edges. Although Jefferson doesn’t actually find Jennifer, the chaos that ensues during all of his ass kicking in the club allows Jennifer to escape amidst the confusion. For the first time we see Black Lightning’s powers: (1) bolts of lighting from his fists (think Emperor from Star Wars), and (2) punches that also seem to be powered by lightning. All of the fighting gets the attention of the city police department. The police arrive at the scene and taser Jefferson – who seems to drink the electricity from the tasers like Red Bull. Then he uses his Star Wars-Emperor lighting bolts to escape.

The Black Lightning Cast from left to right: Cress Williams (Black Lightning), Christine Adam (Lynn, Black Lightning’s ex-wife), Nafessa Williams (Black Lightning’s eldest daughter Anissa), and China Anne McClain (Black Lightning’s youngest daughter Jennifer)

 

Fortuitously, he’s injured. Yes, fortuitously. His injury leads him to visit his mentor and father figure, Peter Gambi (played by James Remar), who stitches him up both physically and emotionally. As the two men talk, Jefferson recounts all the reasons that he doesn’t want to take up the Black Lighting mantle again. During the conversation between Peter and Jefferson we learn that Jefferson began fighting crime because the leader of The 100, Tobias Whale (played by Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III), viciously killed his biological father. Jefferson’s revenge mission subsequently tore his family apart, leading Jefferson to promise his ex-wife that he’d leave the crime fighting to the police. Despite this painful history, Peter tells Jefferson that the city needs Black Lightning – and this need becomes crystal clear in the next scene.

In the next scene, Will, the minion mentioned above, kidnaps Jefferson’s daughters right out of Garfield High School, breaking the safe-zone agreement. Will is trying to redeem himself with Lala, but, because Will is an idiot, things don’t work out well. Will takes Jennifer and Anissa to a motel that The 100 Gang operates as a prostitution house. At this point, “the gloves come off”, or should we say that the tights get put on, and Jefferson goes on a rampage – in full costume, as Black Lightning – to rescue his daughters. He destroys most of the motel within minutes, and his daughters escape. Black Lightning uses a few addition tricks on William: (1) his suit seems to absorb bullets, and (2) he can use his lightning bolts to make people levitate in mid air (we’re not sure how this works, but it’s a nifty trick when interrogating suspects, as Will learned). It’s clear from this scene that Anissa and Jennifer do not know that their father is Black Lightning. By the end of the episode it is also clear to Jefferson and his ex-wife that he has no choice but to continue serving the city as Black Lightning.

Near the end of the episode, we see Tobias talking to, and beating, Lala for letting the brothel come under attack. Tobias is pissed. Tobias knows that there is a rumor that Black Lightning is back, yet he’s confused because he thinks that he killed Black Lightning. This obviously sucks for Tobias – he thought that he had committed murder, but it was only attempted murder, which is always disappointing for a crime lord. Tobias doesn’t know Black Lightning’s actual identity.

In the final scene of the episode we see Anissa waking up in the middles of the night. She’s going through PTSD from her abduction. She’s anxious and shaking in her bathroom. As she grips the bathroom sink to steady her nerves she breaks the sink in to pieces with her bare hands, and her hands happened to be glowing – which is a universal comic book signal that someone has superpowers. She has inherited powers genetically from dad, or so it seems.

Chantal Thuy is scheduled for a recurring role in the CW series Black Lightning.

 

Questions: 

Why does Tobias think that he’s killed Black Lightning?

Will Jefferson learn of Anissa’s powers this season?

Will Jennifer discover her powers this season as well?

Will we see any other meta-humans in the Black Lightning universe this season?

Why do you think that Black Lightning is not a part of the “Arrowverse”?

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