Netflix's new series 'Black Lightning' goes where other superhero shows fear to tread

‘Black Lightning’ is a superhero show worthy of your time (Netflix)
‘Black Lightning’ is a superhero show worthy of your time (Netflix)

After the success of Luke Cage, and the exponential hype of Black Panther, it was only going to be matter of time before The CW announced plans for a TV show centred on a black DC Comics hero. Well the time is now, that hero is Black Lightning and the series so far is one of the best the network has to offer.

The new series – to be aired on Netflix in UK – has all the heart of the Arrowverse properties and gritty attitude of Netflix’s Marvel offerings. It centres on Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a respected high school principal living in the fictional city of Freeland, who nine years earlier ended his double life as the crime-fighting Black Lightning after his wife left him because of his vigilante moonlighting. However, with the growing social unrest caused by the expanding threat of a dangerous criminal gang called The 100, Pierce is forced out of retirement in order to protect his daughters, his school and the city.

Not often do we see series or films centred around ageing heroes; The Dark Knight Rises, Logan and Watchmen are the only ones that really come to mind and even the first two had already established the hero as a younger man on screen. With Black Lightning we have a superhero who is past his prime but still manages to bring some perspective to the problems he’s facing, problems that have never appropriately been addressed in any of DC’s television shows.

Arrow fans will remember the clumsy way in which the writers’ tried to address gun control with a mass shooting storyline in the episode “Spectre of the Gun”. In trying to make a political statement they failed to deliver any sort of meaningful comment because the narrative didn’t really fall on one side of the argument or the other. In Black Lightning, it’s crystal clear what message showrunners Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil are trying to deliver: that being black in America is not easy and even if you rise up to loftier heights it can take seconds to be brutally brought back down, just because of the colour of your skin.

Pierce and his family deal with police brutality, racial profiling, civil unrest and gang violence from the beginning of the first episode, issues rarely dealt with in such an explicit way in other CW series like Supergirl, The Flash or Legends of Tomorrow. Of course, this is because the main protagonists in these series are white so they don’t really speak to anything other than the white experience, but this is why the show stands out.

Black Lightning isn’t afraid to be serious. It isn’t afraid to scrutinise the political and racial conflict that black Americans are dealing with right now and it isn’t afraid to posit moral questions at its lead protagonist to show that he is not a perfect hero. Yes Pierce is a celebrated figure, both as a principal and as Black Lightning, but his choices and decisions can be flawed and sometimes unintentionally selfish. It also doesn’t use allegory to make a point. Luke Cage doesn’t either – especially in the episode “DWYCK” – but Black Lightning, arguably, tackles theses issues more forcefully as well as broadens the conversation to include more than just the super-powered voices of black men.

We often see in film, TV and culture in general, the erasure of black women; Kathryn Bigelow’s period drama Detroit, about the 1967 riots, had no black actresses in the main cast while Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Beguiled cut out the only black female character. The superhero genre has historically overlooked women of colour but in recent years we’ve seen the likes of Misty Knight, Iris West and briefly Hawkgirl enjoy some small screen exposure. Now, with Black Lightning, we have two female superheroes, with actual powers, ready to save the day.

Anissa (Nafessa Williams) is Jefferson’s eldest daughter and she is a force to be reckoned with. She’s a medical student, a teacher at her father’s school, a civil rights activist and is soon to take up the mantle as Thunder to fight crime with her younger sister, Jennifer AKA Lightning (China Ann McClain) – a straight A student athlete with a need to rebel against the perfect image perpetuated by her school and classmates. Both have inherited the metagene that gave their father his electrical powers and will soon be teaming up as Thunder and Lightning. Representation matters, so seeing two women of colour fighting for what’s right, both in and out of their costumes, is certainly a powerful image to put out into the world.

This show is adjusting the parameters of what to expect from a superhero series, and with Netflix unable to make any new series featuring Marvel character (because of Disney’s plans to launch their own streaming services), it looks like the company can now look to DC properties to continue to bring diverse stories to life. Black Lightning is a brilliant place to start.

Black Lightning will stream on Netflix from January 23

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