Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black Lightning’s series premiere gives us the mature, nuanced superhero show we need

Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW
Photo: Bob Mahoney/The CW
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There are a lot of superhero shows on The CW, and there’s a lot of superhero stories out there in general. You can’t log in to Netflix without seeing a new Marvel show promoted, and you can’t go a few weeks without seeing a new trailer or cast announcement for a Marvel or DC film. Standing out from the crowd is no easy thing to do. In fact, standing out might be discouraged; it’s safer to fall into the DC and Marvel formula, giving the people what they want, or what they’ve been conditioned to want. Some undoubtedly see a plethora of options, an exciting array of their childhood heroes come to life in various formats. Others, myself included, can’t help but see a machine churning out the same old story again and again, relying on nostalgia as a selling point rather than, with a few exceptions, a unique creative vision.


Black Lightning is different though, and that’s its greatest strength. While every other superhero show on The CW, no matter their various strengths, feels of a similar piece (and of course share a universe), Black Lightning is immediately established as something unique. It’s not just the obvious stuff, like the nearly all-black cast or the fact that the series premiere isn’t part of a drawn-out origin story. Rather, the difference is in the storytelling. Where Arrow and The Flash felt immediately part of a large, complicated universe, Black Lightning is much more intimate. “The Resurrection” is certainly about getting Principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) back into his role as Black Lightning, something he left behind nine years ago when it cost him his marriage. More importantly though, the premiere is about patiently establishing the structure and dynamics of Freeland, a city filled with violence and corruption, in order to tell us why Black Lightning matters.

“The Resurrection” wastes no time doing so. The scope of violence in the city is established immediately. As Jefferson Pierce sits in the police station, waiting for his oldest daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) to be released after getting arrested during a peaceful protest, a newsreel details the latest bout of shooting from the 100 Gang. The reporter states there’ve been 125 shootings over a single weekend, and while the mayor says that he’s frustrated by the violence, he’s also worried about the looting and vandalism. We come to understand Freeland right off the bat; it’s a complicated city, filled with well-meaning and inspiring people like Jefferson, who’s helped turn around Garfield High School’s graduation rate, and others who’ve been swept into gangs, complete with all the violence and drugs that come with it.

“The Resurrection” isn’t shy about drawing connections between Freeland and our own world. This isn’t a universe only populated by flashy superheroes and their evil counterparts, where the everyday citizens are nothing but fodder for evil intentions, but rather a real, living, breathing place that boasts all the social issues that plague our own communities. In the opening minutes Jefferson is pulled over by the cops while driving his daughter home from the police station. The stop quickly escalates, as Jefferson’s head is forced onto the hood of the cruiser. He’s a victim of racial profiling, “the third time this month.” It’s a powerful scene for the way it taps into real-world problems of police violence, but it’s also powerful in the way it shifts the narrative of the superhero. Black Lightning isn’t just a man fighting against a vague sense of injustice, but rather something more specific, more in tune with our current cultural and political moment, and that helps Black Lightning convey a strong voice early on.

While the series premiere can certainly be applauded for the way it integrates timely social justice issues into its superhero storytelling framework, such thematic focus isn’t just a way of signaling some sort of philosophy or perspective. Rather, it’s a genuine world-building tool. Over the course of the premiere, as Jefferson eventually decides to once again adopt his Black Lightning persona in order to save his daughters from the 100 Gang, we come to understand why Black Lightning is necessary, in a way that feels complicated and personal.

The premiere’s most subtly important scene sees Jefferson confront Lala (William Catlett), a former student turned crime boss who’s struggling to keep his men in line. When Jefferson asks him to keep his men away from Garfield High School, Lala agrees, but not without a show of force. He yells at a young kid in his care for missing his assignment, getting physical with him before Jefferson steps in. Lala pulls a gun and points it at Jefferson: “Don’t ever put your hands on me again. You teach them your way, and I’ll teach them mine.”


That moment is a complex one, and it suggests that Black Lightning isn’t going to shy away from moral relativism. Jefferson believes he has a duty to show the young people in his community a way forward that doesn’t involve the 100 Gang or any other life of crime, whereas Lala believes self-sufficiency, in any form, is necessary because the system is so stacked against his community. This doesn’t mean we sympathize with Lala—in fact, it’s a joyous moment when he gets a harpoon through the chest from the villainous Tobias Whale (rapper Krondon) later in the episode—but it does mean that Black Lightning is committed to making sure its villains aren’t two-dimensional. Lala may be on the wrong side of the law, but he also has an understandable motivation.

If Black Lightning can keep that kind of nuanced storytelling going throughout its 13-episode first season—and considering how fully-formed the premiere is, I wouldn’t bet against the show—there’s a good chance that The CW has yet another hit on its hands. Freeland needs Black Lightning, and so do we.


Stray observations

  • More than any other superhero on The CW’s roster, Black Lightning is a man with a real physical presence. Cress Williams uses his bulk to fill the tight spaces of Freeland—the alleyways, motel rooms, and dark clubs—and it creates an intimidating effect.
  • “We have joint custody, which means that half of her attitude is your responsibility.”
  • “Get your black ass down!” tells you everything you need to know about the cops in Freeland.
  • James Remar as the somewhat magical tailor and wisdom-giver Gambi is an inspired choice.
  • China Anne McLain and Nafessa Williams give one hell of a performance during a scene where Jennifer and Anissa argue about the violent reality of where they live. It’s a truly compelling scene that gives us integral insights into each character.
  • Speaking of Anissa, she’s seemingly gifted with her father’s powers, or some version of them, ripping the house’s bathroom sink in half in the episode’s final scene.
  • I really like that Black Lightning jumps right into its story. With Jefferson already accepting that his Black Lightning days are behind him, delivering a speech to Gambi about how nothing changes because there’s too much rot in the system, the show can speed up the usual “conflicted vigilante” angle and instead put Black Lightning right back into the action.
  • Lots of great music cues in “The Resurrection.” Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” and Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” in particular really set the tone for the series. Here’s hoping we eventually get Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” which The CW used to great effect in a trailer leading up to the premiere.

Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.