The Berlanti comic-based television programs on the CW welcomed a new addition, the first with an African American in the titular role, when Black Lightning premiered Tuesday night.
[*Spoilers for the series premiere ahead!]
The show wasted no time in highlighting relevant social issues as it starts off with protagonist, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) sitting in a police station as he watches the news. Community activists had taken to the streets to protest the rise in gang activity, but the demonstrations turned violent when members of the local gang, The 100, confronted the crowd. Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), was among the demonstrators and was arrested during the riots. Her father and younger sister, Jennifer (China Anne McClain), are at the precinct to pick her up after her release.
Afterwards, on the drive to a school fundraiser, Jefferson scolds and lectures Anissa for being arrested. They are soon interrupted when a police car pulls them over, suspecting the dad in a liquor store robbery. We catch a first glimpse of Black Lightning’s ability to manipulate electricity as his frustration and anger causes the police sirens and flashlights to flicker on and off. The cop shows no contrition for wrongly suspecting and hassling Jefferson.
The family finally arrive at the fundraiser, and it’s for Garfield High School, where Jefferson is the Principal. Not one for swanky parties, Jennifer ditches her family to hit up a club with her friend. When her father finds out, he goes after her only to find her in trouble with members of The 100. He hasn’t been Black Lightning for nine years, but in order to save his daughter, he has to use his powers once again. While Jefferson battles the gang members, Jennifer is able to slip away and escape in the chaos. Afterwards, as he is leaving, our hero is once again stopped by police. With events from earlier in the evening still fresh in his mind, Jefferson electrically blasts the cops after they hurl a racially insensitive remark his way and tase him.
Following the incident at the club, Jefferson visits his old superhero mentor, Peter, to recuperate from his wounds. For all those nine years, Peter has been trying to convince his friend to pick up the mantle of Black Lightning again. For Jefferson, there was no end to the crime fighting. He wanted originally to avenge his father’s murder by Tobias, and it soon turned into moving from one crime boss or crooked politician to the next. There was no end to the crime fighting, and for all the good he accomplished as his superhero alter-ego, it was at the expense of his personal life. His wife divorced him and kicked him out of their home. Only after giving up the mask and working hard for the past nine years has he raised two successful daughters and is close to reconciling with his estranged wife.
The next day, one of the gang members, Will, has tracked down Jennifer at the high school. When he won’t leave her alone, Anissa comes to her sister’s aid and takes him down. Humiliated, Will reaches for his gun when Jefferson steps in and talks him down. Troubled by the gangs encroaching into his school, Jefferson sets up a meeting with Lala, one of his former students and a local leader of The 100 gang. Previously, there was an unspoken agreement among all the gangs that Jefferson’s high school was a safe zone, and Will violated that. The principal wants Lala to make sure Will stays away from the school and his daughters. Unfortunately, Will doesn’t receive the message in time and he breaks into Garfield High and kidnaps Anissa and Jennifer.
Jefferson visits his mentor Peter and finally reaccepts the responsibility of being a superhero. He picks up a new bulletproof costume and leaves to rescue his daughters. We finally see Black Lightning in action as he tears through the motel complex Will is holed up in. He takes no prisoners, beating gang bangers down, using one as a human shield while being shot at, and even shocks a john who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jennifer and Anissa escape while Black Lightning throws Will through a car window.
Meanwhile Lala meets up with head of The 100, the previously mentioned Tobias. Though there are rumors on the news that Black Lightning has returned, Tobias questions their veracity since he believes he killed the superhero. Regardless of who this new person claiming to be Black Lightning is, Tobias tasks Lala with taking care of him since he is bad for business.
The final scene has Anissa coping with the trauma of the kidnapping. As she goes to the bathroom to wet her face, it seems the stress she experienced activated super strength and she breaks the sink. Black Lightning isn’t the only Pierce family member with super powers.
The season premiere does everything needed in a pilot episode to draw the viewer’s attention. Compelling, multidimensional characters are introduced. Although they were kidnapped, the Pierce daughters are far from helpless. Jennifer has the intelligence to realize when a situation is fishy and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself when confronted. Anissa has the skills to physically take down the bad guys, and now with her super strength manifesting, it will be interesting how she uses her powers for social justice and change in the community.
Even the villains are complex, with many parallels and connections drawn between Jefferson and Lala. They have a mutual respect for each other as Lala was his former student, and they both try to instill discipline and a hard work ethic among their kids, but through different means. While the school principal uses positive reinforcement with his students, the gangster uses fear and intimidation with his corner boys. At different points they even utter very similar lines when they talk about how one of their family members brought violence in their place of work after so many years of peace. Tobias may be the overall big bad, and the show has all season to develop his relationship with our hero, but short term, I’m anxious to see how the conflict between Principal Pierce and his former pupil will play out.
With regards to action, there’s really only the final scene when Black Lightning storms the hotel. Since he can manipulate and control electricity, it’s a nice added touch to have the flashes for each blow he lands on his enemies. In addition, the soundtrack really enhances the mood for the scenes they accompany. For the aforementioned action sequence, Jack White’s Lazaretto is perfect for getting the adrenaline flowing and pumped up for the fights, while earlier when the Pierce girls are kidnapped, Isaac Hayes’ Walk on By captures the somberness and dread of the occasion.
Finally, the emphasis on social issues cannot be overlooked. From the very beginning, there is the frustration with the rise of gang violence. In addition, there is the issue of police harassment and racism. Williams effectively conveys the anger and frustration of being falsely accused along with the vulnerability and helplessness of seeing guns waved in his daughters’ faces. Even the background comments can be as thought-provoking, whether it’s the newscast addressing how Black Lightning is considered a vigilante because he’s black, while other super powered crime fighters are heroes, or Lala telling Jefferson the difficulties Will has had assimilating back into society after being imprisoned.
The season premiere was well done and builds enough intrigue to warrant continued viewing. Black Lightning airs Tuesday nights at 9:00 pm on the CW.