In Black Lightning, There’s No Right Way to Fix a City

The CW series paints a complex portrait of a superhero—and a community—conflicted over how to deal with issues like crime and police brutality.

Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a Black Lightning
Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a Black Lightning (The CW)

This story contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Black Lightning.

In the second episode of the new series Black Lightning, Principal Jefferson Pierce addresses a group of parents who have become increasingly concerned about the gang problem in their community. In a spirit of optimism, he quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Without missing a beat, one fed-up parent replies, “They shot Dr. King in the head.”

This quick exchange sums up some the most prominent themes in The CW’s latest comic-book adaptation. Black Lightning, which debuted last month, offers what is arguably the most timely and nuanced portrayal of the internal conflicts that can arise within the African American community on the subject of racial justice—both what that entails and how to achieve it. Cress Williams plays Jefferson Pierce, the principal of his former high school and, secretly, a former superhero with the moniker “Black Lightning.” He had hung up the electrifying costume (and was presumed dead) and turned to gentler ways of trying to save his city—until it became apparent early this season that he might need to take a more hands-on approach once again.

When Black Lightning begins, the fictional American metropolis of Freeland is in trouble (this being a superhero show). But the citizens aren’t worried about metahumans. They’re concerned instead about local violence, growing protests over the police’s inability to combat gangs, systemic racism, the ever-increasing presence of drugs, and whether their children can walk home from school safely. (Realistic news footage of protests might call to mind media coverage of the unrest that unfolded in Ferguson and Baltimore a few years ago.) In short, Freeland is set in a world much like our own—and, as in many neighborhoods across the U.S., its residents can’t agree on the best way to fix their community’s problems.

The husband-and-wife executive-producer duo Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, who most recently worked together on Being Mary Jane, have spent their careers honing black-centric narratives and now bring that experience to Black Lightning. The show makes abundantly clear that African Americans aren’t a monolithic group: If one black character complains about police violence, then another laments about how police don’t get credit for the lives they do save. There’s an authenticity to the series—it’s neither too pulpy nor too preachy—that’s heightened by the strong performances from its predominantly black cast, particularly from Williams, who anchors the show’s many conflicts.

As Black Lightning’s hero, Jefferson is a weathered, but hopeful, family man, one who’s much older than the usual crop of CW heroes. The series is wise to eschew the typical origin story of a young’n discovering powers, instead introducing Jefferson after he’s settled into a normal career and raised two daughters. His approach to Freeland’s many woes is a peaceful one that seeks to work within the system. As a principal, Jefferson believes in the importance of educating and mentoring his students before they go down the path of drugs and crime. (He has tried to keep his own family safe this way: One of his daughters is studying medicine, the other is a track star.) Early on, he dismisses the idea of installing metal detectors in the school because he doesn’t want his students to feel like criminals. He even has an unspoken agreement with the 100—a gang known for drug- and sex-trafficking that’s slowly taking over Freeland—to stay away from Garfield High.

Less interested in this patient route is Jefferson’s older daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), whom we first meet in the pilot episode after she’s arrested while participating in a protest-turned-riot. After picking Anissa up, Jefferson pulls out another peaceful King quote while scolding her, but she spits back one from another civil-rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Anissa is part of a generation of younger activists who are ready to take to the streets, who reject the notion of “respectability politics,” and who believe that sometimes the only way to get the world’s attention is to burn something down.

Black Lightning is striking for how many well-rounded black characters it has, which allows for tough exchanges like the one between Anissa and her father to take place every week. (The show also takes care to include people of different backgrounds without reducing them to some single aspect of their identity, like race or sexuality.) There’s Inspector William Henderson (Damon Gupton), an African American police officer who often hears from other black Freeland residents that he’s doing a poor job protecting the community. And where others see Black Lightning as a welcome hero, after Jefferson chooses to use his powers again, Henderson considers him a vigilante. We also see the gang leader Lala (William Catlett)—who, like Jefferson, is big on molding the next generation—telling a young boy to spend less time on his phone and to work harder … except he’s talking about dealing drugs.

Other recent TV shows from African American creators have explored similar territory. In Season 1 of Dear White People, black college students regularly discuss the best way to deal with racism. After a campus cop pulls a gun on one young black man during a party, the series shifts its focus to follow various reactions; some students turn their anger inward, others protest. ABC’s Black-ish frequently illustrates the disagreements within the African American community (often in terms of the generational divide) on problems like police brutality or the stigma surrounding therapy.

Unlike those half-hour comedies, of course, Black Lightning is a superhero story, which means it can approach similar topics a little more creatively. Even if the constant juxtaposition of Jefferson and Anissa’s beliefs can at times feel a little on-the-nose, the fantasy elements help keep things fresh. In the pilot, Anissa (who’s unaware of her father’s secret life) discovers a power of her own: some sort of super-strength, which she uses to take down drug dealers in the fourth episode. It’s a clever twist because Black Lightning knows it’s impossible for one person—powers or not—to fix an entire community alone. The reveal also raises the dramatic stakes: Both father and daughter will certainly keep their abilities to themselves, but viewers also know that if (or, when) Jefferson finds out, he’ll project his own fears about being a hero—and the mental and physical toll it takes—onto his daughter.

Black Lightning’s broader exploration of the multitudes contained within a larger whole is nicely embodied by Jefferson himself. He’s both Principal Pierce and Black Lightning; these two halves are always working against each other, a conflict that’s been with Jefferson since the start of the series. Within the first five minutes of the pilot, Jefferson is pulled over—in his business suit, with his daughters in the car—by two police officers, who manhandle him. After demanding an explanation, he’s simply told that he fits a description of someone who robbed a liquor store, the unspoken description, of course, being “black man.” This profiling makes Jefferson want to go full–Black Lightning; you can literally see the electricity in his eyes, but he has to contain himself. After all, as Jefferson says in that episode, “I have saved more lives as a principal than I ever would have as Black Lightning.”

This tension comes to a head, as it must in order for the series to work. The 100 kidnaps Jefferson’s daughters and brings them to the Seahorse Motel—known as the gang’s sex-trafficking hub—forcing Jefferson to use his abilities to save them. Later, Jefferson learns from a former student named Lawanda (Tracey Bonner) that her kidnapped daughter is still in the motel. Lawanda is soon found dead, after trying to confront the 100 herself, sparking a crisis for Jefferson.

Lawanda’s death hits him especially hard because she was his student, and he believes so much in his power as an educator. “I had a fantasy that when they leave me, their lives are better. That they could transcend this neighborhood, this city, world,” Jefferson tells his wife Lynn (Christine Adams). Maybe he was wrong; maybe Black Lightning does save more lives than a high-school principal. But the show is quick, yet again, to complicate this sympathetic idea. Lynn lets  Jefferson know that she’s against him donning the suit again, though her reasons are mostly personal. She’s seen how Black Lightning damaged their family (the two are separated) and believes he has an “addiction” to being a superhero.

Black Lightning, like all superhero shows, is about many things at once. It’s about the dynamics within the Pierce family; about Jefferson’s old nemesis Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) seeking revenge after learning Black Lightning is alive; about the Pierce daughters’ budding relationships with their respective partners; about a young woman coming to terms with her mysterious abilities. And this means that, like all superhero shows, it can sometimes feel too crowded or uneven. But Black Lightning’s greatest success so far is how it has surveyed the different ways black people tackle problems in their own backyards. Viewers see Henderson putting his faith in his own police department, Reverend Holt (Clifton Powell) organizing a march, and a Garfield High student, Khalil (Jordan Calloway), hoping to use sports as his way out, until violence jeopardizes that, too. And Jefferson is somewhere in the middle of it all, unsure of the right approach but knowing something has to be done.

Black Lightning can be overt about this inner conflict: In the fourth episode, a friendly dinner between the Pierces and the Hendersons turns into a debate about whether Black Lightning is good or bad for the community that unfolds as Jefferson quietly listens. The rest of the episode raises the same point a bit more subtly. A new drug called Green Light (“like crack and PCP … had a baby,” as one character puts it) is being targeted to black teens, while Freeland grapples with the aftermath of Holt’s “peaceful protest,” where Holt and Khalil were shot (both survive; Khalil is paralyzed). This combination simultaneously makes Jefferson want to put on his Black Lightning suit while reminding him he could cause even more bloodshed in his quest for peace.

So far, Black Lightning has set up an intriguing premise that’s been pushed along by a cast of well-defined characters. And it’s already managed to distinguish itself not only from the Arrowverse (which includes shows like Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl), but also from Marvel’s Luke Cage, the series that’s usually mentioned in the same breath. It would be a mistake for the show to gradually become more about the costume than about the person wearing it. But Black Lightning can avoid that fate—and even become great—if it continues to train its eyes on the realistic dilemmas facing Freeland’s black community—and lets those inform the superhero elements, rather than the other way around.