January 16th saw the premiere of Black Lightning on the CW network, making it the highest rated series debut in two years, with even the rerun pulling in huge numbers for the network. Black Lightning played to 2.3 million viewers, toppling a record set by DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, a show developed to capitalize on the shared universe concept. Legends was third in a series of television shows beginning with 2012’s Arrow, which itself led to the revelation of a world full of interconnected heroes, affectionately referred to by fans as the ‘Arrowverse.’ Black Lightning is yet another series from DC Entertainment to grace the CW, the sixth, counting iZombie. Some fans would ultimately like to see Jefferson Pierce and family rubbing elbows with Arrowverse mainstays like Oliver Queen or Barry Allen, but they couldn’t be more wrong – – Black Lightning is fine just where it is.
“This is the third time this month!”
Jefferson Pierce shoulders the weight of an entire community and you see it on his face. A single father and high school Principal, even before his first line is spoken, Cress Williams does an excellent job relaying the heft of burden with his facial expressions alone. Times have been difficult, with few bright spots. As Principal, Jefferson brokered a deal with the gangs to treat the school as a safe zone, leading to graduation rates of over 90%. However, Jefferson questions his parenting skills when oldest daughter Anissa (Nabessa Williams) is arrested during the protest. On the ride home, the Pierce family car is approached by a police car, after a liquor store was robbed. Forced to exit his car in the rain, then handcuffed, Jefferson pleads with his daughters to comply with police, and stop filming the arrest. I’ll admit that even though I have an idea that the main cast will be okay, I felt a real sense of dread once the siren sounded and the scene took a turn toward the inevitable. Though the Pierce family all survived the ordeal, Salim and Mara Brock Akil set Black Lightning apart from the other shows in how grounded the events are. Racial profiling and policebrutality aren’t exactly story elements that have a place within the Arrowverse as it’s currently situated. From Supergirl to Legends, each of the shows is said to be structured towards a specific theme, but law enforcement is unequivocally good somehow. Black Lightning doesn’t have time to foster your ambiguity. In Freedland, like inner cities across America, the police operate much like a gang, and here we see it on full display. How would Barry Allen or Joe West feel about Jefferson Pierce’s stance and later, actions, towards law enforcement?
The Wests aren’t THAT relatable, and Diggle was a glorified babysitter
Look, if anything happens to Jesse L. Martin on The Flash, I’ll be the first to lead the charge in retaliation, let’s just clear that up. However, to the average person of color, Joe West represents more an ideal parent figure than an actual person we could emulate. Obviously black people comes in all shades, yes, but let’s face it, “African-American Police Officer, Single Father, and GREAT at it, All Around Swell Guy with Gifted Superkids,” seems a bit heavy. On paper, Joe West could be deconstructed to a series of checkboxes, being the only representation of an older Black man on that show. Arrow’s John Diggle has gotten some depth over the years, as has Curtis Holt, aka, Mr. Terrific. In Black Lightning, persons of color are just that, people. As no one character is a monolith, it lends to many different portrayals of the Black experience. Though Jennifer Pierce (China Anne McClain) is an honor student, she still chose to rebel against her upbringing for the sake of image. Jennifer goes to a club known for gang activity, even participates in drug use while there. Have any of the Arrowverse shows dabbled in recreational drug use, or the existence of urban Teenage prostitution rings for that matter? Would you even want them to? Remember the Legends of Tomorrow episode, ‘Abominations?’ You know, the one where they force the two Black characters to watch a slave being beaten from behind a tree, with the excuse that their interference could wreck the entire timeline? This same episode also saw Sara Lance present Ulysses Grant with a zombified head, not even 10 minutes later. Right. . .
No ‘Suicide Slums,’ no White Savior
A problem with a lot of the entertainment seeking to showcase the Black experience, is oftentimes it just seems like a portrayal of what white people think being black is. With that said, changing “Suicide Slums,” to the city of “Freedland,” was a welcome change; the former almost reeks of desperation and hopelessness. The city in the comics exists as part of Metropolis, and a question I always wondered as a kid was why Superman didn’t protect that part as much as the others. If Freedland were to suddenly exist with the Arrowverse, you’ve got to ask the same of heroes like The Flash or Green Arrow. How close in proximity would Freedland have to be, only to be completely ignored by the other heroes until now? It would be tough to write Freedland as a “sister city,” without making the other heroes seem selfish, less heroic in comparison, and maybe even a little bigoted. Even James Remar’s character acting as a surrogate father figure to Jefferson seems a bit tired. Incorporating Black Lightning into the larger world could even affect some of the storytelling elements that the Akils are bringing to the table. This is a show about a father and his daughters trying to save their community. Having an influx of heroes would certainly lessen that narrative’s impact. One thing I do want from Black Lightning is to see fully-developed characters. Just don’t be a show where “Good Black Guy”, fights a series of “Bad” people of color. Luke Cage had you rooting for Shades by the end, and who doesn’t want to see Turk Barrett have a good day? Assholes, that’s who.
That damned extended cast photo
Yeah, that one. This one, also. Hell, why not include this one too, while we’re at it? I get that we’re supposed to be excited to see all these heroes on screen at once, but the third time around it’s starting to look silly, all standing in a line like that. I mean, check out poor Rick Gonzales photobombing his own shoot. Now you want to add 3 more heroes? I’m good.
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