Black Lightning fans, #RiseUp! And welcome to my weekly episode wrap-up of Black Lightning. Now, just so you know, I don’t plan on spoiling the episode…but, I am going to do a little talking around some of its greatness. Plus, this was the premiere and, as much I love you guys living vicariously through my writing, I want as many people to watch this show as possible. So, yes there will be some spoilers here, but just enough to let you in on a few of the things I enjoyed most. Starting with...
The entire episode seems to revolve around Jefferson Pierce trying with all his might to save the things he loves most—his family, his students, and the city of Freeland. Here are the beats.
The show begins with Black Lightning bailing his daughter Anissa out (#WokeDaughterAlert) after she was arrested for protesting injustices in Freeland. On the way home from springing Anissa, he’s pulled over and harassed by some smarmy police officer and in almost direct dichotomy to how his daughter deals with the injustices surrounding her, he does nothing—even though he is clearly livid about the situation. (I also thought this was an interesting expression of the generational and ideological divide on accepting police violence as status quo in our communities.)
He takes them home and heads to a fundraiser/gala event celebrating the things he has done for their community and we meet his stunningly beautiful, ex-wife (and mother of their two children), Lynn. We learn that the reason she is an ex is basically because he had a secret crime fighting identity, that tore their family apart. Apparently, it’s been nine years since he last put on that Black Lightning costume, and he’s been trying to stitch his life back together ever since. The gala is interrupted when Jefferson Pierce discovers that his daughter, Jennifer, is in some trouble at a club with a local and tyrannical gang, the 100—led by the ruthless gang leader (and ex-student of Jefferson’s), Lala.
Jefferson shows up and secretly and subtly uses his powers to save his daughter. Unfortunately, this ends up only further deepening Jennifer’s tangled situation with the 100 gang, and they show up the next day at her school and kidnap both her and her sister, Anissa. The police say they can’t do much, and even though he knows the persona of Black Lightning will eventually destroy his family, Jefferson Pierce also knows becoming him is the only way to save his family. So he decides to don the mask and becomes Black Lightning again.
He does, and it’s magnificent. Readers, I LOVED this action scene! And I loved this episode. Hard luck hero stories ALWAYS cut right into my feels and allow me to empathize directly with the hero. Because in my experience, having great power or great talent has not shielded me or anyone I know from the hardships of life. And watching these heroes navigate that struggle without giving up just…inspires me to do all I can with the little bit of (non-superpowered) skills and talents I have.
Black Lightning opens with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” playing in the background. It’s a really interesting (although, somewhat misplaced) choice as the thematic intro to the life and times of people in the city of Freeland, and it adds a nice touch of melancholy to the tragic montage of struggle that is their everyday lives. But it doesn’t end there. There are soulful hits interlaced throughout the entire episode. We got a little taste of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By.” Bobby Blue Bland’s “Aint No Love in the Heart of the City” makes a lovely appearance, and Gil Scott Heron’s “A Sign of the Ages” is so perfectly dropped into the scene, it almost feels like a whole new cast member.
The Code Switching
Okay, so for those that don’t know, code-switching is a term used for when a person alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, as part of one conversation. It’s a way of speaking that’s often used by people to “get in where they fit in” with language they know their audience will understand. One thing I absolutely enjoyed was watching Jefferson Pierce along with his daughters Anissa and Jennifer navigate their way through the world of Freeland, not just physically, but interpersonally as well.
The reason I’m bringing it up here is because I noticed the way characters flipped language switches to speak to their loved ones, coworkers and even police officers, in completely different and situationally appropriate ways. The verbal (like Anissa’s use of the word “fast” before Jennifer’s “Harriet” retort) and non-verbal cues (like “the nod”) of the characters in Black Lightning are some of the most genuine parts of this premiere, and because of how well the actors played their roles, it doesn’t come off as offensive or corny in any way (a wonderful side effect of excellent writing and stellar acting performances), and instead pays off with remarkable dividends for the story through style and character believability.
The Other Nods to Black American Culture
At the beginning of the show, there is an exchange between Anissa and Jefferson where they quote lines from famous civil rights leaders Dr. MLK and Fannie Lou Hamer respectively. It reminded me of how my parents did the same.
Growing up, there were nods like this to the black American experience all around my house. Famous quotes, stories and works of art by famous black scientists, civil rights leaders, poets, athletes and musicians were never much farther than an arm’s length away. So, watching Jefferson Pierce and his daughters go back and forth with snippets of black culture warmed my heart in the best of ways. Music, art, education, resistance to injustice. These are all major parts of the lived experience of black folks in these United States, and I was overjoyed to see them represented on screen here.
More specifically, his spirited, take-no-stuff daughters. The show literally starts with Jefferson having to bail one of them out of jail. Then, when his daughter Jennifer gets hemmed up at the club, rather than shake and shiver like a victim, she demands Lala’s goons respect her, and then knees one of them in the groin to further emphasize her point. Jefferson’s other daughter, Anissa, boldly stands up to a member of the 100 gang to protect her students at Garfield High School. That and the chemistry between Jefferson, Anissa and Jennifer is so good. SO GOOD. They really look and feel like they love one another. It’s nice.
So, there are two movies that I felt that this show makes direct parallels to. The first is Lean on Me (where Morgan Freeman plays high school principal, Joe Clark). Jefferson Pierce is also a high school principal, and just like Joe Clark in Lean on Me, he believes the greatest thing he can do for his community starts with saving the kids at his school.
The other story parallel I appreciated comes from the cult classic superhero flick, Meteor Man (wherein Robert Townsend plays mild-mannered-man-turned-superhero, Jefferson Reed). Like Jefferson Reed, Jefferson Pierce lives in a city that’s drowning in gang violence, and just like in Meteor Man, because of complete police ineptitude, Jefferson has to take justice into his own hands to bring peace back to the neighborhood where he loves and lives.
Both of these parallels were beautiful nods to popular stories about black heroes saving the world by first saving their community—and they were wonderfully appreciated.
Six Honorable Mentions
Lala’s army of velour suits
Black Lightning is “fake news”
Police harassment (not whitewashed for TV)
Witty hero/bad guy banter
The town undertaker having “deep pockets”
Anissa’s big reveal at the end of the episode (See? Told you I wouldn’t spoil everything!)
One last thing. It looks like that fan theory I floated earlier about Scooter (of Living Single fame) leaving Flavor magazine, changing his name, moving to Freeland and becoming an electric-powered superhero was completely debunked in this episode…
I know, crazy, right? I thought I may have really been on to something with that! Oh well. On to the next one!
Alright, dear readers, that’s all I have until next week’s episode of Black Lightning. For more from me on all things Black Lightning, check me out on Twitter at @RegularEtCetera. Until then, hasta la próxima semana!