Violence And Heroism In Black Lightning: “The Resurrection” – Thoughts On Episode 1

by Noah Sharma

The word of “The Resurrection” is “violence”. Salim Akil and his team make that perfectly clear from the word go, with the ominous strains of “Strange Fruit” hanging over the first shot. Anissa Pierce (China Anne McClain) has gotten herself arrested, part of a protest against gang violence brought down by The 100‘s retaliation and distrust of the police. Her father, the principal of Garfield High, pulled some strings to get her released before a major fundraiser.

Jefferson (Cress Williams) is furious that Anissa would put the protest before the school he’s worked so hard to build, but she doesn’t see how the two aren’t interconnected. She argues that attending a peaceful protest is nothing to be ashamed of, but Jefferson snaps back,

Burning police cars, breaking windows? You know that’s actually the very definition of peaceful…

Well I guess it depends on what your definition of peace is because the people in Freeland, they haven’t had peace in generations.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Dr. King…And I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Here we truly get our first image of Jefferson Pierce, and it is a complicated one. Though the script leaves it somewhat unclear exactly how the protests descended into violence between the three factions present, it clearly states that the 100 themselves were the ones to initiate it. Anissa is obviously in the right, but Jeff doesn’t want to hear it.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about that exchange is what’s not said. Jefferson, a teacher and inspiration to his community – “their father’s like Black Jesus to Freeland”, Lala (William Catlett) says later in the episode – has an MLK quote at the ready, only to have one from a less famous and less palatable source thrown back in his face, in the form of Fannie Lou Hamer. But, of course, Anissa’s argument recalls another of Reverend King’s most famous statements,

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.” —“The Other America”, 1968

Dr. King would expound on the same concept in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, writing, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”.

If Black Lightning has conveyed anything about its construction and philosophy in its first episode, it’s that the show is smart and unwilling to hide from plain but uncomfortable racial realities. There is no doubt that such quotes were on the minds of the scriptwriters and that there was an expectation that a significant portion of the audience would be summoned to remember them. And here, in that brief moment between realizing that Anissa is essentially citing Dr. King, and Jefferson actually quoting him, we encounter the tragedy of this first story.

Jefferson Pierce, like the memory of Reverend King, has been rendered toothless.

The numbers in “The Resurrection” are startling. Over one-hundred and twenty shootings over a weekend, and Jefferson has been pulled over by the cops three times this month. Perhaps these sound excessive to you, or perhaps they merely sound sad and truthful, but whatever your opinion, Black Lightning conveys very quickly the pounding repetition that Jeff endures. In this, Cress Williams shines. He effortlessly conveys the deep anger that wells up inside of Jeff as well as the ways in which he vents that frustration, in costume and out.

For fans of the character, its immediately clear that this isn’t quite the Black Lightning we’re used to. Williams’ Jefferson Pierce feels older and more weary than perhaps any version we’ve seen in the comics. Pierce has never been a Bruce Wayne type, his true face hidden by a mask in costume and out. Tony Isabella’s Black Lightning always fully believed in and respected his power as a hero and as Jefferson Pierce. Even in later interpretations, Jeff has always been portrayed as a fighter with the patience and hunger to keep fighting the good fight, taking other heroes under his wing, or taking a job with the Luthor administration to ensure that the Justice League had a man on the inside. In fact, if anything, Jeff’s flaws lean towards the morose more than the choleric, losing his powers due to guilt over the death of an innocent in an issue of DC Comics Presents, and continuing to patrol with only his natural athleticism until the cause was revealed in Batman and the Outsiders.

Jeff’s attitude – not to mention his costume and his relationship with Lynn – were very different in 1977’s Black Lightning #1

But this Jefferson is older and his school and his family are everything to him. “I’ve saved more lives as a principal than I ever could as Black Lightning,” he says with self-loathing derision. And he’s not necessarily wrong. According to Senator Turner, Garfield High’s graduate rates are in the 90s. That’s not bad for any high school, much less one in the center of a gang crisis. His eldest daughter volunteers at the school and he knows his students by first name, putting an important discussion about metal detectors in the school on hold to remind one student to come see him about the yearbook layout. The whole school eagerly chants along about their future and their opportunities.

But that kind of stability comes at a price. Before long we see that Jeff has made an ‘unspoken agreement’ with all of the gangs to leave his kids alone. And though he says “unspoken”, it’s clear that Jeff knows where to go to talk to Lala, one of his former students and a leader within the 100. As the episode plays out, one of Lala’s boys breaks into the school and kidnaps Jeff’s daughters at gunpoint. Obviously one could point to Pierce’s principled stand against metal detectors as a factor that allowed this to happen, but as Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton) points out, it’s also because Jefferson turned a blind eye in the name of not ‘escalating’ things.

And that’s commendable, in a way. When Anissa protects her sister from Will, she doesn’t care about whether or not it escalates, antagonizing him in violation of the school’s safety procedures, and her dad has to deescalate things to avoid a school shooting, one of his most heroic moments in the episode. But as he scolds her, Jeff mentions that “it’s been seven years since I took over as principal – seven years – and we haven’t had one incident of violence, not one!” That is an impressive claim, if one that begs the question of what Jeff considers violence, but, even as he flaunts that, one has to wonder if he’d be so confident in his decision to eschew metal detectors if he wasn’t essentially in bed with the 100.

Certainly Jeff’s position makes sense, a school needs to be a place of safety, and his greatest ability to change Freeland will come through the actions of his students, but one has to wonder where the line between realism and complicity lies.

Not only that, but Lala and Jeff have more in common than he might like. As the two men meet, Lala chides a young boy named Malik over how he greets Mr. Jefferson, only to shift radically once the boy’s guard is down and the conversation turns to how much product he’s moved. Of course Jeff can’t stand for that, he’s a good guy – an educator! – but Lala makes his position clear: “You teach them your way, and I teach them mine.” Later, the comparison is drawn even more deeply. Ever the savvy businessman, Lala comes down hard on his subordinate for drawing the attention of Pierce and the cops, “It’s been like, what, at least five years since I took over this place? And we ain’t had no violence here, now look!”

Anissa, our eyes for much of the story, told us up front, there has always been violence, but as long as it was somewhere else, that was ok.

Jeff has bought into the myth of the model minority. He trusts that if he obeys the police and accepts that voice in his head that says “Wait. You’re asking for too much too soon. Maybe in the next generation.”, everything will be ok. He’s willing to give up on what’s right and what’s fair so that he can enjoy what little has been allowed to him. He’s a hero, but he’s not the one that we wish he was, that we know he was and can be again.

Lala’s on the other side of that coin. Lala’s given up on what’s fair. For all the horrible things that he does, and all the hatred and anger in his heart, he’s taking care of his people and his tribe just the same way as Jefferson has been. The only difference is that he won’t pretend that the game isn’t rigged. “The reality of the situation,” he tells Malik, “is when you got your mind buried in them video games, them white boys up in them neighborhoods that you sellin’ in are being prepared to run the world and your black ass!” To him, this is a war of identity and he’s playing the hand he’s been dealt. Legality, meritocracy, the model minority, that was never an option. He’s only allowed to be one thing, so he’d better be the best at it. To be honest, I’m hoping we’ll see a lot more of Lala in episodes to come.

But, like Dr. King said, an anger can only fester for so long before it needs to come into the light and that’s what Black Lightning is. When Jeff’s new priorities finally encounter a situation that has no acceptable solution but to use his powers again, he finds himself once again staring at the barrel of a gun. “I tried to do it the right way,” he mutters to the guard as much as to himself. To complete the circle, after the police threaten him as he tries to leave, he sets their car on fire with his powers. “Burning police cars, breaking windows…”

And even though they’re shown to have a mutual respect, Inspector Henderson is quick to deflect attention away from the dangerous crime den that Black Lightning shut down in favor of calling for justice for his two downed officers. He denies Black Lightning’s involvement totally, instead substituting a nebulous unknown black man high on drugs, swiftly showing the limitations of the current system, even when African-Americans have positions of power.

But Jeff needs to believe in the right way, because it’s the only way he can be who he is and hold onto the dream of putting his family back together. And, in doing so, he allows himself to become a force for the status quo, accepting deals in the name of pragmatism, devaluing black anger, shutting down Anissa’s activism with a thousand familiar white talking points, and threadbare insistence that he was fighting a long time before her, even if he can only point to actions that don’t upset anyone in the last nine years.

Even at the end of the episode, Jeff hasn’t really changed. Though he’s put on the suit again, it was only ever in service of the new Jeff’s goals. And there are plenty of other dings and wear on the hero that was Black Lightning.

Throughout the episode, we see Jefferson controlling his family. He only rescues Jennifer the first time because he immediately tracks her cell phone and, in the aftermath, he swiftly and easily gaslights his ex-wife. It’s honestly uncomfortable to watch him lie to Lynn’s face, especially with Cress Williams’ nailing a delivery that’s believable enough for her, but clearly stilted to the audience. In these moments, we see a man who needs control living in a world that doesn’t want him to have any. The trope of the protective father occupies a slightly different space in black culture than in my gentrified bubble, but one can’t help but think that Anissa would call him out hard if she knew, even if the results generally support or remain neutral on his actions.

More than most television adaptations, I found Black Lightning’s premiere to be particularly tight and thoughtful in its plotting. The result is an episode that almost feels like a feature film and doesn’t put the hero in his costume or feature a full, traditional fight scene until the last seven minutes. As such, it can be shocking to realize how much growing Jeff has to do, but it definitely builds excitement for the rest of the season.

In its first episode, Black Lightning provided a damaged, imperfect hero that is far more compelling than many of the shortsighted playboys who so frequently bear that label. The battle for the soul of Jefferson Pierce mirrors fundamental rifts within Black America and the episode is beautifully crafted around his development. Though fans like me might long to see Jeff fully realized as the hero he is in the comics, it is both heartening and fascinating to watch how the series introduces depth and modernizes the seismic, but admittedly imperfect creation of a white man over forty years ago.

Black Lightning had a heavy weight upon its shoulders, called upon to speak for a community whose chances to speak are limited through a medium that demands ‘universal’ stories. While it is not without flaws, this opening episode sets a high bar and establishes clearly that, while Black Lightning may be many things, it will not be toothless.