Jefferson Pierce, aka Black Lightning (Cress Williams) has been retired from his superhero persona for nearly a decade when we first meet him. He is a pillar of the community, has created a school that actively encourages young black Americans to strive for more and is a stand-up father to two daughters.
After being forced to save his daughters as Black Lightning from a hostage situation, Pierce sees the hope inspired by his actions in the community, a community being systematically torn apart by drugs, corruption and violence dished out in equal measure by fearless gang The 100.
Despite the protestations of his estranged wife Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams), Jefferson slips into the shiny, technologically advanced suit of Black Lightning once more to free his hometown from The 100 and its nefarious leader (and Black Lightning’s arch enemy), Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) – an intriguing villain made more interesting by being a black albino.
The show is at its strongest and most meaningful when it fully embraces real-world issues: the strained but loving relationship Jefferson has with his daughters Anissa and Jennifer, the tension with Lynn, and the real-world politics of non-whites achieving self-determination contrasted with those in power exploiting those without. It also explores the very first superhero lesbian woman of colour to be portrayed on TV as she grapples with her love life, and surprisingly isn’t ostracised by her very religious family.
For non-white audiences it serves as an excellent glimpse into what everyday people of colour experience without alienating them with unfamiliar vernacular. If we don’t fully appreciate the fear of being pulled over by the police for the crime of being a black American, we can definitely get behind seeing a superhero dismantle a crime ring and bring corrupt officials to justice.
The first season unfolds wonderfully by eschewing most of the tropes inherent in bringing a new superhero character to the mainstream. For starters, this isn’t Black Lightning’s origin story – by the end of the first episode we see a fully formed Black Lightning taking out bad guys. His character’s growth centres around the discovery that both his daughters are also metahumans, so in broad strokes the first season is about the master/student dynamic.
Another clever step away from the cliché is making the villain a black albino, although by season’s end the symbolism does start to become a bit trite. In fact, if it weren’t for this and the blind assumption that the audience believe in God (almost all the powered characters believe their powers are a gift from God to be used for the betterment of all, which feels a little forced) Black Lightning would be a perfect show.
But there’s one problem: Black Lightning’s mentor Peter Gambi (James Remar), the Alfred to Jefferson’s Batman. He makes the suit that allows Black Lightning to kick so much butt and plays no small part in convincing Jefferson to come out of retirement. He also has a dark past and is a double agent of sorts. In short a layered, nuanced character begging for a character actor to own. So why on earth was James Remar cast? You may not know the name, but you’ll know the face and you’ll certainly remember the bizarre, affected way he delivers lines from such forgettable movies as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Phantom. His performance in Black Lightning is so wooden he could give Keanu Reeves a run for his money.
Putting Remar to one side, Black Lighting is a triumph of keen storytelling, compelling action and believable real-world ideas. Its arrival, impeccably timed to coincide with Marvel’s Black Panther, may or may not have been deliberate, but it certainly did it no harm.
Time will tell whether the executive producer Greg Berlanti will incorporate it into the shared universe of his other DC television properties (Arrow, The Flash, Legends Of Tomorrow and Supergirl) but as a stand-alone TV show it is most welcome in a market saturated by white guys saving the world on a weekly basis. It’s a strong start, but can we dial back the Remar please?