As I sat down to watch Black Lightning on the CW on Tuesday night, I felt the same mix of emotions I usually do when watching superheroes translated to live action. I love that the characters I love are getting more exposure. But I worry that the adaptations will alter them beyond recognition or, just as bad, that the quality of the production will not be up to par.
So far, I’ve only loved two opening television adaptions of superhero works: Jessica Jones and Daredevil.
Now I had to add Black Lightning to the list. Yes, it was that good, from the moment it started with words that were in the first comic book:
Justice, like fear, will ever appear to some men hope and other men fear.
I had that line memorized from reading the comic over and over as a kid. I had chills run down my spine when they were unexpectedly spoken at the beginning of the show.
So while I was familiar and liked Jessica Jones and Daredevil in the comics, I loved Black Lightning as only a person who falls in love with a character as a child can love them.
But if you’ve never heard of Black Lightning, should you still watch?
Here are seven reasons why:
Black Lightning’s Premise Is Topical
I’m a white woman. I cannot truly judge how well the show portrays black characters and situations. However, this is a show where two of its four executive producers–Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil–are black, along with executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter. Own voices reviews of the show have been enthusiastic, such as this one on BlackNerdGirls.
The premiere episode begins with Jefferson Pierce driving his daughters, one in graduate school, one a high school senior, and then being stopped by police. In a harrowing sequence, Jefferson tries to hold onto his temper as he’s ordered out of the car, handcuffed, and brutally handled with no explanation. At the same time, he’s yelling at his daughter to relax, to cooperate, to chill, even while he has no idea what the police want and why he’s been handcuffed.
It turns out that police were looking for someone who robbed a liquor store and the only description they had was “black male.” Jefferson releases his anger, briefly, as he knocks out the electricity on the police car and the light overhead but he lets it go and regains control.
But only briefly. Because even though Jefferson is already a hero to the community, having led a revitalization of the local high school, an oasis for its students, he soon has to become Black Lightning again in order to save his younger daughter from the consequences of not realizing what “fun” can lead to in this unsafe community.
That leads to another confrontation with the police and it does not go well for them this time.
Cress Williams Is Perfect as Black Lightning
Halfway through the first episode, I turned to my husband and said “Who is this guy? He is so good. Where has he been in all this time?”
Williams is the quintessential “Wait, I know that guy from… hmm… that thing.” He’s had a long career, beginning in 1993 on Beverly Hills 90210 to Nash Bridges and, most recently, in Hart of Dixie and Code Black. He’s definitely earned a true starring role and he makes this most of it in this show, imbuing Jefferson Pierce with charisma, humor, intelligence, regret, and simmering anger. He commands the show from the moment he’s on screen. He makes you care about Jefferson Pierce and agonize for the choices he must make.
The Pierce Sisters
Jennifer Pierce (China Anne McClain), and Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams) avoid what I’ve taken to calling the CW superhero curse, where the women are given little to do save support the men, a problem that was particularly notable for Iris West on The Flash.
Not so Jennifer and Anissa. Even in the first episode, we’re given insight into their hopes and dreams, their goals, and their personalities. Jennifer is the smart but impetuous one, always wanting to push boundaries, and Anissa is the smart and studious one, more careful of possible consequences to her actions. But she stands up for what she believes in as well, protesting against the 100’s gang stranglehold on her city. Both of them are destined to become superheroes with powers and the show promises to be as much about their origins as about Jefferson Pierce reclaiming his superhero identity.
It took until the episode was over to realize that I’d been spared yet another superhero origin story of the hero learning how to use their powers and deciding to use them for good. Instead, we’re dropped into a world where Jefferson decided his powers weren’t the way to help people and that his moonlighting was hurting his family. This is a story of a man rising up again after he’d put it behind him. The flash memories (they’re too short to be called flashbacks) fill us in on just enough of why Black Lightning was retired. The Pierce sisters will likely get some of the origin portion of the story but that should be in concert with working with each other and their father.
And in this one episode, we visited the high school, the police station, a club that is a front for the 100, a local youth program that is a front for selling drugs, and a seedy motel where all sorts of criminal business takes place. And the show fills all these places with interesting characters, giving us a glimpse of the complexity of this community. Even the conversations go back to the worldbuilding, such as Jefferson’s rejection of a proposal to install metal detectors in his school.
Excellent Supporting Characters
Remember Inspector Henderson from the Superman stories, including the television show? He’s been race-bent for Black Lightning, now played by Damon Gupton. He’s just one of many characters who are on scene for a short time and make an impression. There’s also Peter Gambi (James Remar), Jefferson’s mentor who serves as his father figure, someone who feels that the city needs Black Lightning.
We saw little of the main villain, Tobias Whale, but what was seen was chilling. Even more chilling was the performance of William Catlett as Lala, the man in charge of the 100’s drug program. The scene in which he tries to “teach” and then terrifies a kid working for him made an immediate impression.
In short, the cast is uniformly good with meaty characters to play.
This music absolutely fits the story, a pounding driving soundtrack that is already available digitally. It heightens the emotions, from the opening sequence in the rain to the club scene.
Action is one thing the Berlanti shows have always done well but the set pieces in the premiere may have topped them all, especially what broke out at the club after Jefferson gave the guard a chance for “the easy way” and that ended with yet another confrontation with police who suspected him just because he was black.
But it’s the final action sequence that sticks in my head, as Black Lightning, out to rescue his daughters, comes into the opening, taking on all comers at the hotel, and holding the main culprit in the air with his lightning powers.
This is not a man to mess with. Ever.
But this is a show you should be watching.
Missed the premiere and want to catch up before episode 2? It’s streaming on the CW.