Let’s make a black-superhero television show, shall we?
First you’d need to have a network that actually has a track record of successful shows about superheroes. CW? Check.
Then you’d need a diverse black cast that hits all age groups. Cress Williams as the star, with old-school cred from Living Single and crossover love from Heart of Dixie? China Anne McClain, who pulls that Disney crowd from A.N.T. Farm and Descendants? Perfect.
Last, you’d need some real-black writers and producers, folks with a track record of success who will fight the networks for all the little details, like having shea butter in the bathroom scenes and showing how a black superhero would really feel about the cops. Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil—the Batman and Wonder Woman of black television, who have a hand in just about every black show over the last 20 years (Soul Food, Girlfriends, The Game and Being Mary Jane)? It’s. About. To. Go. DOWN.
Black Lightning isn’t the first television show to star a black superhero—there was M.A.N.T.I.S. in the ’90s on Fox; Spike TV’s horrible Blade show, with Sticky Fingaz, in ’06; and Luke Cage on Netflix—but it’s the best black superhero show that’s ever been put on TV, and you’ll see that in the premiere.
Black Lightning, premiering tonight on the CW, is the story of Jefferson Pierce, a man in his 40s drawn back into the superhero game after taking a long hiatus to save his marriage and raise his two kids. He’s settled into a comfortable life as principal of Garfield High School. He’s spitting game to get back his ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams from The Mentalist and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who left him because she couldn’t handle the stress of his double life. As a principal, he can keep an eye on his wild younger daughter, Jennifer (China Anne McClain); and his older daughter, med school student Anissa (Nafessa Williams, from Twin Peaks and Burning Sands), regularly drops by the school to volunteer.
Unfortunately, the 100 gang, led by Tobias Whale, an albino gang leader with a Moby Dick fetish (played by Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), has decided to rip apart the city of Freeland by running everything from prostitution to legitimate businesses and youth centers. The 100 is like what would happen if 100 Black Men of America merged with Hydra. Now, with the help of his old friend and mentor Gambi (James Remar), Pierce has become Black Lightning again to fight fire with lightning.
It feels like a lot is going on; how the heck do you describe a show like this?
“Luke Cage mixed with Black-ish with maybe a Cosby Show flair ... that might cover it, with a dope soundtrack.”
That’s how Cress Williams laid it out to me after a long day of filming in Atlanta about a month ago. Both he and Jones are acutely aware of how big a hit Black Lightning could become. Sandwiched between the Netflix-busting Luke Cage and next month’s Black Panther movie, Black Lightning has a window to create its own unique buzz. Yet the actors are acutely aware of how Black Lightning meshes with the expanding mainstream world of black superheroes.
When I asked Jones how he developed Tobias Whale, he took me straight to previous shows and comics.
“Of course, Cottonmouth from Luke Cage,” says Jones, who went on to praise the villainous work of Mahershala Ali, whom he considers a friend and mentor. “And Wilson Fisk; I love Wilson Fisk.”
When I ask him if there are any real-world people he drew inspiration from for his character, Jones thought for a moment, sitting back in his chair as we sat in a small room during a brief break in filming. Finally, he settled on the perfect mixture: “It’s that attitude, that ‘I made it, NIGGA, YOU DIDN’T’ attitude! He’s like Kwame Kilpatrick mixed with Big Meech.”
I’ll admit that despite enjoying the cast and crew, I was skeptical about how Black Lightning would turn out. I love comics and superhero shows, but most of the superhero programs on the CW are trash for black people. The black guys are almost always sidekicks or marginalized; the black women exist only as eye candy or love interests for white guys; and the costumes are so bad, most CW heroes look like a flash mob of cosplayers. However, I was more assured when I heard showrunner Salim Akil talk about putting his heart and soul into the show.
He talked about the crime in Black Lightning’s Freeland being based on his hometown of Richmond, Va. (which has had a top 10 murder rate for the last 20 years). He talked about a showing a new kind of black masculinity on-screen, the kind that is usually suppressed in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.
“In so many shows, the black man NEVER gets the woman … it’s like he doesn’t have a PENIS!” Akil said, talking about how Jefferson Pierce was going to be a three-dimensional character with love, sexiness and action. I knew I was going to see something new. Turns out I was right.
Black Lightning is actually a very good show. I’ve watched the pilot three times, twice on a laptop and once during a public screening at the DC in D.C. event last weekend. Every time I watch, I see something different that I like. The action is good, the plot makes sense, and the show flips tone from fun to suspense almost every other scene.
The writers don’t beat you over the head with a message every scene, but Black Lightning operates in the real world of race, police violence and crime. The daughters, Jennifer and Anissa, are fantastic, their banter actually sounds like two sisters talking, and the show posters indicate that before too long, they’ll develop superpowers similar to how they did in the comics.
A superpowered, highly educated, crime-fighting black family in the era of Donald Trump? You better get on this show before Jeff Sessions finds out. Black Lightning is the best sci-fi genre show I’ve seen in years, so set your DVR, sit back and bask in the glory of knowing you’re seeing superheroism at its finest and, most importantly, its blackest.