Black Lightning isn’t the first television show to prominently feature black superheroes and it also isn’t the first cape series with a predominately black cast. And yet, Black Lightning is telling a very particular story about black lives that’s unlike anything else on the CW right now and it feels very much like it’s operating on a different level than most other TV shows based on comic books.
Black Lightning’s first few episodes immediately make it clear that for the time being, Jefferson Pierce’s (Cress Williams) life as a vigilante has always been largely focused on street-level crimes with a direct impact on his community. Long before he became the principal at Freeland’s Garfield High School, Black Lightning dedicated his life to dealing with crime bosses and corrupt politicians when the police could (or would) not.
Like his fellow CW superheroes, Jefferson’s compulsion to patrol the streets of his city is borne out of a desire to protect the innocent and vulnerable. But Black Lightning is distinct from other shows on the network because of the way it carefully brings Freeland’s community to life. It’s always a little odd listening to the Flash or Supergirl talk about how they’ve sworn to protect Central and National City (places they supposedly love) because neither of those cities actually seems like they have any kind of discernible personality to them.
Central City and National City are—as their generic, cookie-cutter names might suggest—meant to be a blank canvas of sorts for The Flash and Supergirl’s characters to act in front of but never really interact with in any substantive way. There are citizens living out their respective lives, sure, but you never get a sense that there’s a deeper interiority to them the once they wander off camera. Black Lightning’s Freeland, by comparison, is populated by people that look, sound, and feel real, which is a key component to making the show work.
Because protecting Freeland is ultimately Black Lightning’s primary goal, the city had to be fully realized in a way that makes the audience care about it as well. That kind of commitment to thoughtful world-building would have ensured that Freeland was depicted intelligently no matter what form showrunner Salim Akil wanted the city to take, but the decision to focus on Freeland’s black community is particularly significant.
Freeland’s school system, police force, and local media are all portrayed as consisting almost entirely of black people and something happens when traditionally marginalized communities become the central focus of shows like Black Lightning. There are black supporting characters on every single one of the CW’s other superhero shows, but there’s a very particular way in which those characters’ plotlines seldom delve into stories about their race because they’re supporting characters. There may be the occasional mention of how Joe West’s race impacted his career as a police officer, but The Flash has never really explored what it was like for Joe to raise a white child as if he were his own. That isn’t necessarily the kind of story that we should always want or expect for characters of color simply because of their race, but they’re the kind of narrative texture to a character’s life that makes them seem more three-dimensional.
Because Black Lightning’s story is so rooted in the lives of black people, you never get the sense that the show might shy away from handling issues relating to race in the heart of each episode’s main plot. Black Lightning doesn’t have to slow things down to get into the Very Special Message About Discrimination because none of the characters need to be reminded what racism or police brutality are. Black Lightning assumes that we as viewers have enough of an understanding of those issues that its characters can tackle them head on, honestly, and sometimes messily—the way actual people do.
One of the most heartening things about the series’ first few episodes is how the dialogue is written and delivered. Put simply—you can tell that there are plenty of black people in Black Lightning’s writer’s room and their writing from their own personal experiences. Jefferson Pierce’s fatherlike pontification about responsibility and the importance of education comes across as kind of stuffy and kind of condescending, but that’s how parents are with their children. Jefferson’s daughters Anissa (Nefessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) hash it out with their father and never miss an opportunity to challenge his authority even though they know that he fundamentally cares about them.
While watching Black Lightning’s first two episodes, the show’s characters immediately felt familiar because, as a black person, I recognized the broad strokes of their personalities and voices. I know what it’s like to be a black student at a school where the principal knows everybody’s name and is seemingly always in your personal business. I know that slightly overbearing father who worries too much about his children and also wonders if he’s driving them away. I know that exasperated teenager who just wants a chance to live their life outside of their parents’ shadows—I’ve been that person.
To be fair, these story beats have been seen on television before, and in black superhero shows, no less. But what Black Lightning manages to pull off that Luke Cage doesn’t is that it builds out a world rendered in shades of grey as opposed to black and white. When Luke Cage is on screen lecturing someone, you can tell that Luke Cage wants you to side with the titular hero and immediately accept his read on the situation as the accurate one. Black Lightning frames Jefferson Pierce as a more fallible person that other people aren’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with (be they friends or enemies) when they feel it’s necessary. That doesn’t mean that Jefferson’s always (or even usually) in the wrong, but rather that Black Lightning is willing to challenge and be critical of its hero.
If we’re getting down to the brass tacks of it, Black Lightning’s ultimate superpower is that it’s got a kind of diversity that’s greater than the sum of its parts—diversity in front of the camera, behind it, and in the writer’s room as well. It’s when there are a variety of different narratives, from different perspectives, presented that we can really begin to see the kind of meaningful representation that more and more people are beginning to agitate for in pop culture—which gives Black Lightning an edge that can’t be overstated.