Black Lightning is technically the second African American superhero from DC Comics. He first appeared in 1977, 6 years after John Stewart debúted as a Green Lantern in 1971. Marvel had aready unveiled the Black Panther in 1966 and Luke Cage in 1972.
It’s probably no coincidence, that the new series premiered on CW Channel (USA) last week and comes to Netflix UK January 23rd in its 40th anniversary year.
Husband and wife creators and senior writers, Salim and Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane, Girlfriends) have brought us a tweaked live-action version of the comics and it’s a good-looking package. Black Lightning also has an excellent soundtrack boasting jazz, blues, R&B and Hip Hop. The first track in the pilot episode is Strange Fruit, and later we are treated to a track by Gil Scott Heron via a quotation from Fannie Lou Hamer, whose birth centenary was last October.
Cress Williams (Prison Break, Hart of Dixie) steps into the iconic role as middle-aged Jefferson Pierce, a highly regarded Principal of the local high school. No one is aware of his natural-born ‘metahuman’ abilities, which means Pierce aka Black Lightning can manipulate electrical energy. 9 years previously, after a bloody showdown with crime boss Tobias Whale (Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III), Pierce chose to suppress his powers and focus on his family. However, it’s too little, too late, as it costs him his marriage to the beautifully regal lawyer Lynn Stewart (British Blacktress Christine Adams). Tired of seeing her husband beaten and bloody, she divorces him. The two remain close, sharing custody of their daughters, high-schooler Jennifer (China Ann McClain) and medical student Anissa (Nafessa Williams). But, they live with their father in an affluent neighbourhood.
Based in the fictional town of Freeland, Pierce’s school is within a negotiated ‘safe zone’ aimed to protect students from the growing threat of local gang the ‘100’ run by Tobias Whale, but led by Lala (William Catlett), an immoral sociopath with a fondness for tracksuits. Pierce is under pressure, as Lala bypasses the safe zone to recruit students to the gang. Jennifer, struggling under the weight of expectation, recklessly rebels, leading her to cross paths with a 100 gang member. Meanwhile Anissa, a modern, aspirational African American woman who is ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’, is disparaging of what she sees as inaction in her father, to properly shut down the 100 gang’s influence on the local community. After a series of situations get out of control, Pierce is forced to re-engage with his Black Lightning alter ego.
There is a lot to like about Black Lightning. Pierce is very appealing as an intelligent professional and pillar of the community; we are presented with African Americans in various roles of authority; the chemistry between Pierce and Lynn is engaging. Generally, there is all-round good casting of all the main and supporting characters. With an obviously high production value, we get great action scenes, and permeated throughout is a proud black consciousness.
Where Black Lightning comes up short, is in depicting the community at large – poor African Americans losing their children to black criminals. With all the potential science fantasy has to offer, neither the comic book nor TV creators are able to imagine a threat to the black community more menacing than drugs and arms dealing pimps. This is comparable to Marvel’s Luke Cage: Black Lightning’s Lala & Tobias, and Luke Cage’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Black Lightning’s writers manage to shoehorn in racist white cops, but we get no mad scientists, oligarch multi-billionaires or alien Supervillains. Though Catlett’s Lala and Jones’ Tobias are well acted and convincing, once again, black-led science fantasy fails to qualify as Afrofuturistic (along with Star Trek: Discovery), simply giving us more of what we already have.
Between them, DC and Marvel have created 52 black Supervillains (19 at DC vs 43 at Marvel), most of whom are more than just gangsters gone super-bad. But as yet, we’ve only met Suicide Squad’s Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, 2016), Arrow’s drug supplying Baron Reiter (Jimmy Akingbola), crime lord Andy Diggle (Eugene Byrd) and assassin Ben Turner/Bronze Tiger (Michael Jai White). Deadshot, who is depicted as more of an anti-hero, is hooded in the comics, played by Will Smith in 2016’s Squad, and by a white actor in TV’s Arrow.
As Black Lightning’s central affluent black family, some might view the Pierces as a successful family unit. Yet, the parents are divorced and live separately. It’s a shame that our first black female love interest is more like Spiderman’s commitment-phobe Mary Jane than Superman’s supportive Lois Lane. Some might feel that this isn’t of any consequence. But, given the usual on-screen depiction of black women, it’s disappointing that this educated, beautiful black woman walks away from her family, even though she understands her ex-husband’s moral dilemma.
Whilst generally sticking to the established canon, the writers could have changed this detail, just as they chose to change the chronology and setting. There is the hint of another possible love interest for Pierce, and she is also black. So we will watch for possible redemption on that front.
Still, I will be tuning in for all of series one’s 13 episodes. I just wish that once they had won the commission, the creators had maybe re-watched Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Far Beyond The Stars” (episode 6.13, 1998).
Black Lightning lands on Netflix UK Tuesday, January 23rd. Episodes will be released weekly on a Tuesday thereafter.