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.”