Back in 2016, I applauded Marvel and Netflix for turning Luke Cage into the Black American superhero that America needs today. With his signature hoodie and indestructible skin, Cage felt like the right image for black folk who were being shot and killed like dogs in the middle of the street by the officers who's sworn duty it was to protect us. The CW's Black Lightning, which debuted on Tuesday night, is taking a similar track with bringing the black DC superhero to life, in a similar fashion.
The series opens with Jefferson Pierce—the divorced father of two who serves as a high school principal—sitting in a police station, waiting for his oldest daughter Anissa to be released after she participated in a protest against police brutality. On the ride home, he's pulled over and harassed by two white cops who say this middle-aged man driving with two young women in a sedan fit the description of someone who'd robbed a store. It's a typical story of black people having bad relationships with the white police officers who are meant to "protect" them that we've seen before. Heavy-handed as it is, this is how we open Black Lightning, and while this gaze is never fully shaken off, it'd be too simple to write the show off as the next Black Lives Matter superhero series. No, Jefferson Pierce is more akin to a black Batman who's
married divorced...with children. And while he definitely carries the weight of the series on his back, Pierce might be one of the least interesting folks on the show, so far.
Maybe it's just me; while I grew up loving the image Batman portrayed, his weakest moments always ended up being the monologues Bruce Wayne gave. Based on the premier episode it's hard to tell if Cress Williams is being directed to play Jefferson Pierce a bit stiffer, or if that's just how he's embodying the role. For example, watching Pierce tell his daughter Anissa why she can't be out protesting for a better tomorrow, I felt like one of his students, being talked down to by a superior who demands respect without properly earning it yet. I get his angle; he's been in these streets, both as a crime-fighter and as an authority figure trying to keep the peace within his building. The thing is, in a world where only a few superheroes look like me, I'd wish that one of them talked like me, and not one of my uncles.
Even when Black Lightning's trying to be cool, he can come off a bit like a dope. I'd expect more from him after surviving a gunshot attempt to say something cooler than "damn, you didn't even give a brotha enough time to come up with a witty line." Really, my guy? Really?
There are also some confusing decisions being made in the series. Case in point: Pierce's younger daughter, Jennifer, skips out on a benefit at the school to go turn up at the club, which is riddled with members of a menacing gang known as The 100. After shit hits the fan, she's noticeably shook, but now has a new stalker, a gang member named Will, who shows up at the high school to, I don't know, force Jennifer to be with him. And after big sister Anissa steps in and literally flips his shit, Will's next move is to pull out his gun and try to shoot up everybody in sight in broad daylight. I'm not sure that's how it works, even with gangbangers who, aside from their gangbanging, don't seem like raging psychopaths. It gets worse, though: not long after, Will and a couple of his homies roll into the school, armed, and forcibly remove Anissa and Jennifer from the premises. Sure, this all leads to Black Lightning showing off his new suit and busting some 100 heads, but really? Dude just walks into a school with his homeboys, holding pistols on people, and kidnaps two women in plain sight? C'mon.
That's not to say that the series is all stiff performances and perplexing plot devices; Nafessa Williams shines as Anissa, Jefferson's eldest daughter. Knowing that her powers are going to manifest in new, exciting ways while her father is trying to balance his professional life with his duties as a metahuman who wants to tackle the corruption and violence in his city. William Catlett's performance as Lala, who appears to be one of the lieutenants in The 100, is more of the calm, sadistic leader we're normally seeing in these kinds of series, but it's Marvin Jones III (better known to underground hip-hop heads as rapper Krondon of Strong Arm Steady) who shows the most potential. Portraying Tobias Whale, the leader of The 100, Krondon's only in a handful of scenes in the series premiere. But he's impactful nonetheless.
After taking stock of everything that Black Lightning has fouled up, Tobias s calls in Lala to HARPOON HIM IN THE CHEST to make sure he understands that he needs to put an end to Black Lightning. It's a ruthless act that Krondon pulls off superbly. My only hope is that the inevitable battle between Whale and Black Lightning is as amazing and life-threatening as Whale's proper entrance.
It's hard to judge most anything off of one episode. And being that this is a CW series that's ultimately geared at a teen demographic, you have to forgive the series for only being able to take things so far. There's enough in Black Lightning to keep me watching though, from Anissa's burgeoning transformation into Thunder to Tobias Whale's impending reign of terror. Hopefully, Jefferson's uptight uncle swag grows on me. I highly doubt that the situations these characters get into won't stop being ludicrous, but if we have to suffer through some asinine missteps in logic for the greater good, I'm down to continue tuning in. Maybe the series will shock me by pulling off the inevitable. Get it? Lightning, "shock me." No? I'll stop.