Black Lightning: The Complete First Season
Black Lightning is the superhero show for adults, those who are concerned with more than battles against cartoon bad guys. The 13-episode first season, out on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, is tightly told and full of intriguing ideas.
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed here. The opinions I share are my own.)
Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) has retired from being Black Lightning to concentrate on being the principal of a high school, but gang warfare endangering his children drives him back to his costumed identity, in spite of his retirement agreement with his ex-wife Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams).
The pilot episode directly tackles current events, as peaceful protests turn into violence and Pierce is nearly arrested by the cops simply for driving his daughters home. His older daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), wants more direct political action, capturing a generation gap anyone can relate to.
The younger, Jennifer (China Anne McClain), talks to the wrong, gang-affiliated guy when she sneaks out to a club, which requires Pierce to rescue her. This situation escalates abruptly when the women show up the guy, who kidnaps Jennifer out of her classroom. (In addition to the racism most characters face, the women are underrated and used as bargaining pieces due to sexism.)
I got a palpable sense of danger from these events, much more than I ever did from the Fluperrow set of TV shows. They’re superhero series, escapist even when trying to be grim. This show is, instead, a family drama about a superhero. It manages to seem realistic, even when a guy decked out in neon blue and yellow is shooting electricity out of his hands, because Pierce and his family are so much more than just the costume.
In order to continue the series beyond the pilot, there’s a hierarchy of bad guys — the no-name (Dabier) reports to local gang boss Lala (William Catlett) who’s responsible to kingpin Tobias Whale (Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III), who has a comic-book-style tough-girl sidekick named Syonide (Charlbi Dean Kriek).
As the show continues, we lose some of the more potent cultural context in favor of power-based family drama, but it’s also about the parents falling back in love in spite of their struggles and challenges. An adult romance is rare enough on TV that that’s another unique element of the series. Love isn’t always enough when there are so many other concerns involved.
The show doesn’t require any comic knowledge — it’s more modern and TV-focused than that — but as a long-time DC fan, I got a kick out of seeing Pierce’s new outfit created by Peter Gambi (James Remar), tailor. His storyline has been souped up and made more relevant, too, as we find out in later episodes.
Jennifer’s boyfriend is played by Jordan Calloway, who gets a lot more to do as an athlete who hopes to escape the neighborhood through sports than he ever did as Chuck on Riverdale. Their relationship is affected by taking place in a culture of violence.
Anissa breaks up with her girlfriend as she’s discovering her own set of powers, only to meet Grace, who shows her an Outsiders comic in episode 3. This tickled me, since Anissa and Grace were team members and girlfriends in that title. Anissa suits up in episode 5, making her TV’s first black lesbian superhero.
The traditional vigilante plotline, of a superhero being at odds with the cops, takes on a whole new context when they’re all black. Plus, how do you balance trying to make the community better with your own selfish wants? Pierce is challenged when his daughters are rescued while others aren’t. His daughter wants to take after him, but he wants something different for her than he has for himself.
There’s a storyline about drug addiction within the community, although in this case, the drugs give kids powers. The big bad guy turns out to have a powerful connection to Pierce’s family. I like that we get to see Anissa doing research as well as stomping things, and Lynn is a genius scientist and caring doctor.
The second half of the season brings in a government agency and reveals a conspiracy with echoes of the historical exploitation of and experimentation on the black community. The show becomes more superhero-traditional in plotlines, as more people get powers, but I stuck with it because of the strong family context, as the parents worry about how to best help their kids grow up in the midst of these struggles. Episode 11 is also searing, as Pierce is wrongly arrested, and the humiliation he has to go through at the hands of a corrupt police officer is painful to see.
I watched the whole series over a weekend and appreciated how I could follow the continuing story as I got to know the Pierce family better. Black Lightning as a show is so powerful I’m disappointed there aren’t more substantial extras. I really wanted a comparison to the comic book, background on how the show was developed, and some deeper analysis, particularly of the casting of an albino black man as the bad guy, a fascinating choice.
“Art Imitating Life: The Pilot Episode” (5 minutes) — Executive producers Salim Akil and Pat Charles talk about the real-life influences on the scene where a cop pulls over Jefferson Pierce’s car just because he’s black.
“A Family of Strength” (7 minutes) — Akil and Charles discuss what makes Black Lightning different (and why I like it so much), that the family moments are as important as the superhero moments.
“Black Lightning: 2017 Comic-Con Panel” (17 minutes) — The four actors who play the Pierces and the two producers Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane) promote the show before it appeared. It’s always fun to hear the real voices of the international actors — Christine Adams, from the UK, in this case. And this panel doesn’t shy away from discussing the need for black heroes on TV.
“Come Visit Georgia PSA” 1 & 2 (5 and 6 minutes) — Casting director, location manager, and producers talk about how wonderful it is to film and work in Georgia, given the diversity of locations and talent available. In the second segment, various location owners (restaurant, art center) talk about how easy the crew was to work with. Was this made as an ad to get more locals to work with them?
Plus, there’s a gag reel and a substantial batch, 33 minutes, of deleted scenes. A really great one shows Lynn counseling Jennifer on self-care while worrying about others. A bunch of them give Jennifer more screen time both with her friends and girls who pick on her, which explains more of her attitude in the show.