Black Lightning S01E01 “The Resurrection” REVIEW
Airing in the States on The CW, Tuesdays; in the UK on Netflix weekly from 23 January
Writer/director: Salim Akil
- Jefferson Pierce used to be the superhero Black Lightning, operating in Freeland city. The police, however, regarded him as a vigilante and he was the particular nemesis of rising detective, William Henderson. Pierce gave all that up, though, nine years ago, when his habit of arriving home and dripping blood all over the bathroom cost him his marriage.
- Now Pierce is the incredibly liberal headteacher of Garfield High School, inspiring his students to fantastic results. He’s also the father to two bright and beautiful teenage daughters, Anissa and Jennifer, who would be an example to their classmates if Jennifer didn’t have a rebellious streak.
- Garfield High appears to be an oasis of peace in a Freeland that’s becoming a crime battlefield. One gang, the 100 Club, is gaining ever more power and influence, and is at the centre of a growing number of shootings.
- On one particularly bad day, everything comes to a head. There have been 125 shootings over the weekend, Anissa is arrested at a peace rally that erupts into violence and Jefferson is unjustly pulled over by cops while driving for no better reason than he’s black. Then Jennifer unwittingly gets caught up in a spat between a guy, Will, who she meets while out clubbing, and 100 Club gangster Lala, to whom he owes money.
- Dad has to rescue her. Against his better judgement he uses his powers to fight Lala’s men (though Jennifer doesn’t see him) and also takes down two cops who come to sort things out. Jennifer takes the opportunity to knee Will in the groin, embarrassing him in front of the other gang members.
- Wounded, Jefferson goes to visit his old partner-in-crime, Peter Gambi, an old-school tailor with a secret underground lair who designed Black Lightning’s costume (and presumably other stuff). Gambi makes it clear he thinks Black Lightning is due a resurrection.
- His pride hurt, Will turns up at Garfield High the next day to put Jennifer in her place, only for Anissa to martial arts the hell out of him.
- Jefferson goes to talk with Lala, an old student of his, because he’s previously struck a deal with Lala that Garfield should be off-limits to his violence. Lala, after making it clear who’s the boss here (yes, there’s a gun involved) magnanimously agrees to the truce (but nobody’s told Will that).
- His pride wounded even more, Will returns to Garfield, this time with back-up and some guns, and kidnaps both Anissa and Jennifer. Somewhere, a sanctimonious deputy head is tutting and thinking, “I bet the head’ll listen to me about metal detectors at the entrances now.”
- Will takes the girls to the Seahorse Motel which appears to he a regular 100 Club haunt. Lala is NOT happy.
- To rescue his daughters, Jefferson is forced to resurrect Black Lightning, in a new costume designed by Gambi and with the blessing of his ex-wife, Lynn (whom he clearly still adores).
- Black Lightning is successful but Lala escapes capture.
- Hearing of the spat between Black Lightning and Lala’s men, Black Lightning’s old arch nemesis, Tobias Whale, hauls in Lala and demands that he kill his old enemy. Like, NOW!
- Having a bout of PTSD after her ordeal, Anissa goes to the bathroom at home, only for her hands to start glowing. She accidentally rips the sink off the wall.
Amazing, really, that over half a century since the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin, and still the media makes a big deal about a new TV show that headlines a black superhero. There’s been some amusing clutching at straws to claim it’s a first, as if that makes the show somehow more worthwhile. However it’s not the first US superhero series with a black lead; Blade and Luke Cage beat Black Lightning on that count. It’s not even the first network show to headline a black superhero; the short-lived M.A.N.T.I.S. beat them all way back in 1995.
So instead, media pundits have been qualifying Black Lightning as “the first black DC superhero to have his own show” or “the first black superhero to headline a show on the CW”. All of which is a little desperate, really, and a little depressing. We’ll know we have true equality when a show starring a black superhero premieres and nobody mentions the word black. Which really should be commonplace by now.
But Black Lightning doesn’t need to be a first to be worthwhile. It’s worthwhile because it’s relevant. It’s impossible to extract the sociopolitics from the show, as the writers have decided to make it very much about the black experience in America today. With so much racially-motivated civil unrest in the States at the moment, making a show that didn’t address how a black vigilante would be perceived would have been very blinkered or naive.
However, that doesn’t mean that Black Lightning is grim and intense; this is no socially-realistic reaction against its gaudy CW superhero housemates. The issues are not laid on thick, they’re simply part of the fabric of this world. In fact, Black Lightning, for all it has its finger on the pulse, feels less dour and hardboiled than the first season of Arrow. Make no mistake, while the showrunners are keen to make clear that the series is not part of the Arrowverse (at the moment), crossovers are not out of the question, in terms of matching the tones at least.
Instead, Black Lightning tackles its real-world issues in a slightly stylised world, with touches of the Arrowverse’s goofy humour and a lot of its heart. Clichés and tropes of the superhero genre are lovingly embraced: Gambi is introduced with an “every hero must have one” flourish, while we first meet Whale as he disposed of an underling/adversary/delivery-man-who-scuffed-his-copy-of-Fishing-Today-ramming-it-through-the-letterbox* (delete as applicable) in a way only a supervillain would.
The show doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it invests it with a new vibe. A similar vibe to Luke Cage, sure (it seems black superheroes have to fight black supervillains to a backdrop of drugs and rap) but subtly different. Jefferson isn’t street (or, he likes not to be); he’s more of a middle-class aspirational, and that’s what he wants for his kids too (all of them – the ones at his school as well as his own children). It puts a different slant on the struggle; Jefferson is fighting as much for a vision that the criminals could destroy, as well as for the lives of the people they could destroy.
And it’s a lot of fun. Cress Williams is magnificent as Jefferson, who can be just a little bit Clark Kentish as the well-meaning, naively idealistic and occasionally goofy headteacher, but who makes a fine superhero when called upon. Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain are brilliant, too, as his daughters; kick-ass and spunky on demand but fragile and with a lot of growing up to do. Which, judging by the cliffhanger, may have to happen fast.
Whale has the potential to be a fine ongoing villain, Gambi clearly has a lot a backstory to discover, and there’s an interesting dynamic between Jefferson and Henderson to explore.
The main letdown is the lack of a strong visual signature for the series. It looks fine, but a little humdrum, with only the near black-and-white flashback scene displaying any real flair. Otherwise the lighting and camerawork is a tad flat. There’s nothing particularly spectacular to wow viewers in the first episode in terms of FX. Even the fight scenes are workmanlike. Perhaps, though, expensive to stage, what the premiere really needed was a proper riot scene to set the mood.
But overall, this is an immensely satisfying and promising premiere packed with great characters whom we want to spend more time with.
- “The liquor store just got robbed.”
“And I’m sure the description is – what? A black man dressed in a suit and tie? Getaway car, a midsized Volvo wagon.”
“Have a good night, sir.”
- “You know what, I thought you were kinda cute until I found out you was somebody’s bitch.” Jennifer kneeing Will in the groin is one of the episode’s defining moments – don’t underestimate Jefferson’s daughters.
- Tobias Whale’s delightfully odd little helpers – Joey Toledo and Syonide (both employees of Whale in the DC comics universe) – don’t get much to do, but we love the fact they give Whale a bit of a Gotham villain vibe.
- Great cliffhanger.
- We never get a real feel for Freeland, the place where the series is set. There are few establishing shots of the locations and no shots of the skyline, which gives the slightly odd feeling that the series exists in some kind of “everyplace” limbo.
- Jefferson does come on a little heavy with the two cops he goes all Black Lightning on. Okay, he was not in the best mood, but you can’t help thinking if he used to let his emotions get the better of him like that back in the day, maybe the police had a point about him being a dangerous vigilante.
- Even granting that the fight in the 100 Club is supposed to be confusing, it is really confusingly shot, and not a huge amount of fun to watch.
And The Random:
- Was Tobias Whale’s victim in the giant fish tank killed by a squid? There’s a hint of ink.
- Tobias Whale is an albino African American who uses a harpoon in the comics, too. He’s also huge (muscly huge, rather than flabby fat huge), but presumably that would have made him come across as too much like Kingpin from the Marvel Netflix series. Plus casting an albino African American who also looks like a brick s**t house might have been tricky.
- Freeland, unlike Arrow’s Star City, The Flash’s Central City and Supergirl’s National City, does not pre-exist in the DC universe. It has been created for this show.
- Roland Martin is a real US journalist, specifically known for writing about black American issues. We’re rather intrigued by his inference that Black Lightning is regarded as a vigilante because he’s black while white people with superpowers are considered heroes. You could argue that plenty of white superheroes have been labelled vigilantes (Batman, Arrow, the Punisher) and so Martin is guilty of “alternate facts”; on the other hand, none of those “superheroes” actually have superpowers, so he may have a point. It’d certainly be an intriguing issue to discuss, which presumably is what Martin is encouraging us to do!
- “My sister was arrested for trying to be Harriet Tubman.” Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was a slave who became a spy for the US army in the American Civil War and a key mover and shaker in the famous Underground Railroad, which helped rescue slaves from the southern states via a series of secret safe houses and escape routes. She went on to be a famous abolitionist and suffragist.
Review by Dave Golder