You know who needs black superheroes?
I know, it’s terribly obvious. People of color are the ones that need positive representation of us the most. That should be obvious but there is still the pressure for shows geared towards non-white audiences to still keep white audiences in mind and, presumably, not scare them too much.
Luke Cage is the most recent example of this. I loved Luke Cage, thought it was amazing, and yes it was black as all get out if The Delfonics on the soundtrack didn’t clue you in. All of its faults? I just swallowed them because I was so happy to see a show with a black protagonist addressing black issues in a very black way. And yet, somehow, there was still the overcast of white gaze to the show. Luke, the good guy, was preaching recycled Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. verses. Cottonmouth was pragmatic and closer to the streets, and therefore evil. It’s a little tiring to keep asking for more and getting different but kind of the same. We must keep asking, but it is exhausting.
So while waiting on Black Lightning‘s premier on The CW, I held my breath. They cannot mess this up, they just can’t. Jefferson Pierce is a complicated character that doesn’t deserve the weight of respectability politics. He’s worked with Lex Luthor, archnemesis of everyone in the DC Universe, and dropped the mantle of superhero several times—decided he wanted no more of this vigilante nonsense—to focus on his community, usually picks it back up for his people. That’s not something easily spun around for the “appropriate” audiences.
The show starts with Jefferson picking up his daughter Anissa from jail. She’s been arrested for participating in a very Charlottesville-esque protest. Jefferson himself is quickly accosted by the police looking for A Black Man. This is okay so far, but a bit surface analysis if you will. It might just go the way of Power Man after all. I’m ready to accept it, but this isn’t what I want.
And then at some point, fed up with these white cops disrespecting him, Jefferson blows up a cop car. Just blows up a police vehicle. Say what.
In its debut episode, Black Lightning came out swinging and far surpassed my expectations. Yes, it owes an obvious debt stylistically to the aforementioned Luke Cage, noticeably the use of a very soul and R’nB drenched soundtrack. But it goes a little step further. It addresses police brutality and bureaucracy from a black perspective. It even discusses the institutional racism within the force without skewing Blue Lives Matter. It fully acknowledges that the police are going to shoot us in a hoodie or a suit and tie.
It acknowledges the danger young black girls are in. Anissa and younger sister Jen blast their father’s respectability to smithereens, showing the troubling gap between Old Guard and New Guard and the increasing desire from the younger generation to set aside peace talks for violence. Even the villains are attempting to keep black youth safe. It addresses the realities of black and white racial tensions, even tensions between black communities and Asian communities in a way that feels authentic and very raw.
And the best part? Despite being on The CW, it is still as far away from Oliver Queen and the Arrowverse as possible. That means the brand new possibilities here are endless. We’re already going to see Black Lightning’s metahuman kids, maybe we can even get that live-action Mister Terrific crossover I’ve been wanting for decades (hell, I just want Mister Terrific on my television). Maybe Black Lightning can even save Firestorm from the Flash. Please?
When Jefferson Pierce finally suits up again it’s not to save the world. It’s not to ease some psychological trauma. It’s not even to make a difference because as an educator he is reaching far more lives than as a vigilante. Black Lightning is hope. He is protection that surely isn’t going to come from relying on a system that has already failed us. There’s certainly room for more than one black superhero in the world but Black Lightning is the one we need right now.