Despite the fact that the current comic book renaissance was made possible by a Black superhero film, Blade, the struggle for diversity in it continues to be an uphill battle. However, a key victory was achieved on January 16, 2018, when a classic DC Comics crimefighter received a long overdue push on the small screen. On January 16, 2018, Black Lightning premiered on the CW network. What began as a CW superhero series evolved into a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon.
Set in the fictional city of Freeland, Black Lightning is the story of Jefferson Pierce who is the principal of Garfield High School and the retired eponymous metahuman vigilante. Nine years have passed since Pierce last donned the mask. However, he is soon forced out of retirement thanks to the reemergence of local gang, The 100, led by metahuman kingpin Tobias Whale. The battle hits home when Jefferson’s daughters Anissa and Jen discover they have abilities of their own.
The series’ principal players feature the titular superhero (Cress Williams); Jefferson’s wife, world renowned scientist Dr. Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams); Jefferson’s older daughter, precocious, unapologetic activist, and crimefighter Dr. Anissa Pierce/Thunder (Nafessa Williams); Jefferson’s headstrong youngest daughter and reluctant superhero, Jennifer/Lightning (Chy Anne McClain); Peter Gambi, a former CIA operative, inventor, Black Lightning’s mentor, and surrogate father to the Pierces (James Remar); former star athlete turned reformed living weapon, Khalil Payne/Painkiller (Jordan Calloway); shapeshifting metahuman and Anissa’s wife, Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy); T.C., a technopath and a valued member of Team Black Lightning (Christopher Ammanuel); diabolical crime lord and series big bad, Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III).
Black Lightning originally debuted in DC Comics in April 1977. Created by writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor von Eeden, Black Lightning is the first African-American superhero to carry his own title series. One of the biggest complaints that is constantly lodged against DC Comics is that their characters aren’t as exciting or compelling as the superheroes from Marvel Comics. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Be it Olympian, Midnighter, Cassandra Cain, The Ray, or Vixen, the players of the DC Universe can easily match up with the champions from any other comic book universe. What often happens, however, is that the shot-callers at DC often rob their audiences by either misusing or shelving many of their most interesting characters (of color) to the company’s own detriment. Black Lightning is an example of this. The fact that he hasn’t had a major mainstream vehicle prior to the CW series is absolutely criminal.
Case in point, the ratings. Black Lightning was the CW’s network’s biggest premiere in two years. Even from the first episode it was clear that the series was something truly special. The casting was nothing short of exemplary as each actor delivered in every scene. For example, both Cress Williams and Marvin Jones embody a presence which resonates throughout the show even when they aren’t featured in a scene. Black Lightning and Tobias Whale are not only the leads but also embody contrasting philosophies pertaining to Black culture. Whether as a superhero or an educator, Jefferson’s lives by the highest of ideals. While commendable, said ideals aren’t always pragmatic and he is periodically called on it. Whale is fueled by self-hatred and never misses an opportunity to degrade his own people. The resonance of these mortal enemies echoes so dominantly that the viewers almost forgets that the two adversaries only share a few scenes together throughout the run of the entire show.
Another tenet which makes this superhero action drama shine, are its diverse, nuanced, and powerful female characters. Be they superheroine or villainess, the series doesn’t lack for powerful, beautiful, and compelling women and girls. No doubt much of this can be credited to producer Mara Brock Akil, creator of the critically acclaimed UPN series, Girlfriends.
The ladies aren’t the only avenue where Black Lightning is groundbreaking and progressive. This show is essentially a love letter to the LGBTQ community. Thunder is television’s first Black lesbian superheroine in a lead role. What’s more, Anissa is arguably the breakout character of the series. The strength, the confidence, the ingenuity, the indomitable spirit, Anissa embodies all of the qualities that define Black Excellence. Her relationship with her partner Grace was often complicated yet it was portrayed realistically and respectfully. Even in the 21st century, positive portrayals of Black and Brown same gender loving couples is immensely rare.
Be it systemic racism, colorism, poverty, regentrification, police corruption, mental health, addiction, or gang violence, Black Lightning didn’t shy away from tackling issues plaguing urban Black communities. How the series tackled said subjects only further distinguished the superhero show as progressive and groundbreaking. As a survivor of sex trafficking, Grace’s journey to heal and build a new life was by no means an easy feat, even with superpowers. However, the show managed to explore her journey while respecting her humanity, something rare for characters of color. The manipulations of recurring baddie Agent O’Dell (played by Bill Duke) resulted in Lynn becoming an addict to the dangerous manufactured drug known as Green Light. When confronted by her family, Lynn’s addiction was treated as an illness and not a moral failing as is often the case with Black and Brown people who struggle with substance abuse. What is just as important is the audience watching Lynn overcome her addiction, heal and thrive as a scientist, wife, mother, and a hero. Black Lightning possessed many hallmarks in its arsenal but it also suffered a barrage of setbacks. Many of which culminated during the fourth and final season.
The show was a midseason replacement that received little promotion; it was never afforded the rub of crossovers from its sister CW DC superhero shows. It wasn’t until the third season when Black Lightning made an appearance in the CW Crisis of Infinite Earths crossover. The time slot changes also were a major factor. Moving Black Lightning from Tuesday night with The Flash as a lead in to Monday nights where it competed with the NFL playoffs as well as WWE Raw (cable’s number one show) proved to be a detriment to the ratings.
The departure of China Anne McClain proved to be another critical blow. Prior to the official announcement that season would be Black Lightning’s final season, McClain had made it known to her castmates and production that she was leaving the show. In an interview with Teen Vogue, McClain cited the toxic culture of Hollywood, the unfortunate passing of her close friend and Descendants co-star Cameron Boyce, and a new galvanized spiritual purpose as the reasons she chose to walk away from the industry. In the series, audiences witness Jen fly into the ionosphere, only to absorb too much energy and explode. During Jennifer’s subsequent resurrection, her body undergoes a major transformation and the role of Jen is taken over by actress Laura Kariuki.
And of course, there was the Covid-19. Showrunner Salim Akil stated that the pandemic hindered production and resulted in numerous rewrites of scripts and restructuring of overall story arcs. The production struggles were apparent in the season 4 episodes. The familial squabbles amongst the Pierces were over the top. The Black trauma and pain porn were also at a fever pitch. Whereas in previous seasons Black Lightning always struck a fine balance, the narrative was off the rails in the final season. As the finale drew near, it appeared that all hope was lost. But in true comic book fashion, the heroes made a save at the last possible moment. In one hour the series finale came full circle and delivered an epic conclusion. In a brilliant masterstroke, a returning McClain reprises her role as Jen and it is revealed that her “replacement” was in fact a malevolent entity who had attempted to kill Jen, left her for dead in the ionosphere, and assumed her identity. In an amazing twist, both McClain and Kariuki were able to shine as they faced off against each other.
Tobias Whale and Black Lightning go head to head in one final, ultimate showdown. Freeland’s champion ends Whale’s reign of terror once and for all. While the Painkiller spinoff wasn’t meant to be, the anti-hero’s story arc received closure as well. At the conclusion of the finale Jefferson announces that he’s retiring from crime fighting. He also states that he, Lynn, and Gambi are handing the reins over to Anissa, Grace, Jen and T.C. Thus, the series comes full circle. Jefferson’s true purpose wasn’t simply to become a superhero again. His true purpose was to mentor the next generation of superheroes. Most importantly, Black audiences got to witness empowered heroes who look like them overcome adversity, defeat evil, save the day, and receive a happy ending.
While it is bittersweet to see such a groundbreaking series conclude, the silver lining is that audiences won’t be completely saying goodbye to the world of Freeland. Jefferson Pierce is scheduled to be featured in Armageddon, the next Arrowverse crossover later this year. Here’s to more adaptations of Black Lightning and more narratives that celebrate Black excellence.
After all, lightning has been known to strike twice.