‘Black Lightning’ electrifies its genre despite flaws

Photo courtesy of CW

Last week, the CW released “Black Lightning,” its newest DC superhero series. The show centers on the city of Freeland and its native hero Black Lightning’s crusade against the gang violence that plagues his hometown. The series stars Cress Williams (“Close to Home,” “Prison Break”) as Jefferson Pierce, the principal of Freeland’s Garfield High School who turns into the titular crime-fighter under stress.

In the pilot episode, audiences discover that while Pierce used to fight crime around the city as a vigilante hero, his powers have basically been dormant for close to nine years after his wife left him because he allowed his life as Black Lightning to endanger his family. In the intervening period, Pierce has dedicated himself to protecting Freeland’s youth from a life of crime as Garfield High School’s principal.

When the 100, the gang that runs Freeland’s crime world, threatens his daughters Anissa, played by Nafessa Williams (“One Life to Live,” “Code Black”), and Jennifer, played by China Anne McClain (“A.N.T. Farm,” “Grown Ups”), Pierce is again forced to use his powers. While he at first assures his ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”) that he is only going to use his powers to protect his family, there are hints that he may consider returning to his vigilante life.

In many ways, “Black Lightning” diverges from the model of the traditional superhero series, and most of these differences are for the better. Cress Williams’ performance as Jefferson Pierce is excellent, and the way that he portrays the character’s inner conflicts and feelings of weakness and frustration makes Pierce one of the most realistic and human superheroes out there.

The pilot episode’s official title is “The Resurrection,” and Jefferson Pierce’s nickname among Freeland’s residents is Black Jesus. All of this makes it quite clear that the city is in need of a savior, but Pierce clearly struggles to accept his role.

Another fascinating aspect of the new series is the way it portrays its villains. The ultimate
antagonist is the 100, a sinister gang that terrorizes the city by recruiting young men as its foot soldiers and enslaving young women as its prostitutes.

The plot feels all too real, and the faces of the gang that serve as Black Lightning’s immediate enemy are far more chilling than the usual comic book psychopathic supervillains because they are far more realistic.

While the villains are terrifying, the show forces the viewer to sympathize with them, showing him that every member of the 100 is under the thumb of the villain above him. They cannot help but commit crimes if they want to avoid being killed themselves. The humanity of its characters makes “Black Lightning” a unique and entertaining superhero series,
but thematically the series gets a little clumsy.

The creators clearly want to address the racial tensions that dominate American politics, but in doing so they send a controversial message.

The pilot depicts several acts of police brutality against innocent black citizens, including an incident in which two white cops pull Pierce over and drag him from his car because they suspect him of involvement in a liquor store robbery. Pierce, who is wearing a suit and had been driving with his two daughters in the car, confronts the officers for their racism and nearly uses his powers on them, giving viewers the first hint that he is Black Lightning.

It is important for shows like Black Lightning to acknowledge police brutality. The problem lies in the way the show addresses it.

Pierce, who is meant to be the moral leader of the series, simply shakes off the incident, which he says is the third of its kind in a month, and argues that Freeland’s real problem is gang violence, not police brutality. This evaluation sends a dangerous message that because gang violence can be more widespread and more harmful than police brutality, police brutality should simply
be ignored.

Granted, coverage of these serious topics may improve in later episodes. Hope for the show is in the form of Pierce’s daughter Anissa, who is also hinted to have super powers. She seems far more concerned by the epidemic of police brutality plaguing Freeland, and in the future she may use her powers to fight her own battle for the city.

“Black Lightning” is a fresh and entertaining new contribution to the superhero genre, and if its writers tread more carefully on the issues of race and police
brutality, they could make something special.