The Black Family Gets Its Own on Black Lightningby
In 2003, Marvel Comics released Kyle Baker’s Truth: Red White and Black, an original, in-continuity graphic novel exploring the idea that before giving the super-soldier serum to a white test subject, the US Army tested the serum on a group of black GIs, most of whom perished in the process. The series was dark, well-written, and beautifully rendered. As I read each installment, I thought I was witnessing the beginning of a major turning point in the history of comics. I still do. Since 2003, Marvel’s films, including Black Panther, have made over 17 billion dollars, Captain America was temporarily replaced by his black sidekick, Sam Wilson, and now Michael B. Jordan is being considered for the role of Superman. Even in light of all those milestones, DC Universe’s Black Lightning TV series, which first debuted in the January of this year, represents the most powerful advancement for black comic fans to date.
Created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eden, Black Lighting first appeared in Black Lightning #1 published by DC Comics in April, 1977 as DC Comics third black hero. Based on the success of superhero shows like Smallville, Arrow, and The Flash, Fox committed to producing a pilot with producers Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil. Fox ultimately passed on the show, but the Akils created a new pilot script and landed the series at the CW.
Starring Cress Williams, Nafessa Williams, and China Ann McClain, as TV versions of Black Lightning, and his super-powered daughters Thunder, and Lightning, respectively, the show boasts an excellent cast of black actors. The season 2 premiere even includes Robert Townsend of Meteor Man fame and the great Bill Duke. The show also does an excellent job of mounting its action scenes—whether primarily based on the use of superpowers, gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, or some mix of all three. In the latest episode, villainous henchman, Syonide (Charlbi Dean Kriek) throws down against ultra-capable secret agent, Kara Fowdy (Skye P. Marshall). The combat doesn’t last long, but the result is deadly, and the winner spits, “Bitch, you got my hair wet!” a perfect sign-off line after taking out the trash.
For those fans, like me, who have watched Arrow, and its various related series—The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl—from the beginning, Black Lightning represented a serious advancement for television superheroes of color. For instance, when Arrow first debuted on the CW network in 2014, characters of color were not entirely absent, but none of them were leads. Black Lightning has been presented as separate from the other CW superhero shows. There have been no crossovers or mentions on the other series so far, and I hope it stays that way for some time. It’s not just that Black Lightning is anchored by a superpowered black family, but that Black Lightning is not introduced at the beginning of the series as a freshman hero. He has successfully conducted a superhero crusade in his hometown of Freeland for decades, only to retire and work as a principal at Garfield High School. He only re-enters the fray when a local street gang kidnaps his two daughters, Anissa (Thunder) and Jennifer (Lightning).
From the beginning, Black Lightning has touched on the issues of police brutality, government experimentation on black populations, and respectability politics—as well as, to a lesser degree, black queerness. With its black albino central villain, Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) the show has even explored issues of colorism in the black community.
Season 2 of Black Lightning premiered on Wednesday, October 10. The premiere episode deftly juggled the responsibilities of handling emotional fall-out from Season 1 and table-setting for Season 2. The show has always been ambitious, but it has also hit nearly every mark it aimed at. This new season’s strong start promises more of the same while upping the ante.