Being a Black superhero is complicated. The masks. The angst. The fight to survive. Superman’s “aw shucks, I just want to live a normal life” routine may not work for the Black superhero, not when you’ve been pulled over by the cops for the third time in one week. Not when your budding superhero daughter is risking all your lives by attending a protest. As such, controlling the nearly uncontrollable safety of your loved ones becomes a top priority, and Black Lightning dives head first into this dilemma.
Black Lightning is a DC drama simmering in the problems of the everyday complexity of being a Black superhero in an anti-Black world. Drugs, gangs, and police all play their role, but the shimmering diamond at the core of the show is Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) who dreams of a place to be safe.
The show is flourishing as far as viewership and critical praise is concerned. It debuted as the CW’s highest watched show since DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow at 2.31mm viewers. And it’s been keeping up, only taking a modest dip in episode 2 to 1.8mm.
Its roots lie in DC’s comic book milieu, mirroring other CW shows like Arrow, and Supergirl. But those shows never dealt with the kind of issues Black Lightning does in such a straightforward way. We can partially thank showrunner Salim Akil for that, as certain scenes are gleaned from his own experiences. In speaking to the New York Times, Akil echoed those sentiments, “I had been stopped by the police quite a few times, but my anger in being stopped again was about to get me killed. I stopped putting on the mask of, this is how I’m supposed to act in these situations.” He had to. In our America, fleeting anger will leave daughters, sons, and wives without fathers.
Peep the contrast with Black Panther and the show gets taken to another level. There, an unspoiled Black universe unspools before their heroes. Any beef is one of heritage, of bond, not of uncoiling yourself from the noose of white supremacy. It is not so on Black Lightning, where each move is an act of identity masking. And with good reason. According to the Washington Post, 976 people were killed by police officers using deadly force in 2017. Out of that total, 223 of them were Black. That’s an absurdly large percentage of the whole, considering that Black people are only 11 percent of the U.S population.
At the end of the first episode, Pierce decides that he needs to don the suit again, but as the cops tell him to put his “Black ass on the ground,” he erupts in a rage of lightning. This rage; this fear, is what separates both the universes of the different shows and the universes Black and white people inhabit. One is assured of its place in the world, the other is assured of nothing, not even the sovereignty of its own bodies.
And the characters on Black Lightning are deeply fleshed out human beings, which makes their pain all the more palpable. We see Anissa Pierce’s queerness treated with a kind of care that’s hard to find for a dark-skinned woman as the representation of dark, queer women on television is still rare. The GLAAD report notes only 12 lesbian characters across all shows in the 2016-2017 season. Of them, only five were women of color and only one of them (Viola Davis as Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder) is dark-skinned. But not only that, her sexuality isn’t at all treated as a trope on the show. She simply is who she is, adding a normalcy to her sexuality that’s important for audiences. We see Jennifer Pierce’s rebelliousness not devolve into a trope of Black stupidity. We see the gang members treated as in need of a guiding hand instead of the inside of a prison cell. All this makes the show a must watch. My grown-ass friends on Facebook gush about the show, talking its grit, pulp, and panache. Mostly, they talk about how Pierce tries and tries and mostly fails to protect his loved ones, and his city.
That failure is as it should be. It stops the show from sliding into a revenge fantasy. But what about his role as principal Pierce? Can he guard his carefully tended middle-class life? Can he make good on the promise of Black upward mobility? Of safety? The answers to those questions are what Black Lightning will have to find a way to work around in the upcoming episodes. The fact of the matter is that Black lives and Black bodies have always been fields ripe for plunder. Black Lightning doesn’t try to hide that fact.
Now, in a world of Black Panther and of Wakanda, the dream of a Black safe haven is a visceral exercise in fantasy— The reality is more like what Jefferson Pierce deals with, even as he wields lightning from the palms of his hands.