In only three episodes, The CW’s Black Lightning has already separated itself from all other superhero series on the network. That’s not to say mainstays like Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow are substandard, but rather that Salim and Mara Brock Akil‘s adaptation has raised the bar substantially. Black Lightning has already tackled systemic racism, corrupt law enforcement, gang violence and real-world consequences of it, and marginalized minorities, all while highlighting what a Black superhero lead means to his community. It’s a wise decision to keep Black Lightning separate from the Arrowverse–even if its own Lightningverse eventually grows out of it–but as the recent episode “Lawanda: The Book of Burial” revealed, sometimes the old CW habits leak into an otherwise fresh and timely adaptation.
Let’s keep in mind that, even though audiences have only seen three episodes of Black Lightning, the CW series is probably getting pretty close to wrapping on production behind the scenes. That means that doubling down on the things that work, or any course-correcting for the things that don’t, will probably have to wait until a second season. So where does Black Lightning stand as of this writing? The show’s on solid ground, but some of the sillier stuff undercuts what’s otherwise a very strong message. That contrast is best represented by two very different scenes from “Lawanda: The Book of Burial.”
First up, some context. If you haven’t been watching Black Lightning–and you totally should be–the town of Freeland is caught between the violence and turf wars of the 100 gang, and the presence of both racist and corrupt cops who do little to protect the predominantly Black community. Enter the title hero, the electricity-channeling alter ego of Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a former suited superhero who found he could do more good as the inspiring principal of Garfield High School than he could as Black Lightning. But with gang violence increasing and police neither willing nor able to stop it, Pierce decides he’ll have to fight crime on both fronts.
This could be enough of a premise for just another superhero series and be fine, but Black Lightning really digs into the stereotypes and prejudices of the real world; they show through in just about every scene. Pierce is respected throughout Freeland, be it by the school’s students and teachers, the church-going folks, his police pal Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton)–even if other police aren’t quite so keen on him–or even some of the gang members themselves. He’s also a responsible and protective single father of two daughters and an upstanding pillar of the community, in or out of the costume. But being at the cross-section of so many different sub-communities puts an incredible weight on Pierce’s shoulders and a strain on his ability to keep the peace. (Keep an eye on Williams’ quiet reactions and expressions throughout each episode; they’re many-layered and fantastic.)
One scene which best exemplifies this difficult position–and the show’s grounded, real-world storytelling–was shown in “Lawanda: The Book of Burial” in which Pierce is forced to step between Henderson and local church leader, Reverend Jeremiah Holt (Clifton Powell). Holt’s impassioned, forehead-wiping plea during Lawanda’s funeral inspires his parishioners to take to the streets and rise up against gang violence and police ineptitude. It’s a great scene that taps into Evangelist preacher stereotypes while also hitting at the core of the frustration in Freeland’s Black community, buoyed by excellent camerawork and a solid performance from Powell. Henderson, whose responsibilities are first to keep citizens safe and second to track down the inevitable criminals, takes Powell to task for whipping the congregation into a frenzy, especially while wearing a $25,000 gold watch and wiping his forehead with a silk scarf. Powell, obviously, takes issue with Henderson’s inability to do his job. The conflict is cooled by Pierce physically separating the men, but it comes to a head later in the episode when the police only show up after violence has occurred once more, violence that was mitigated by Black Lightning’s arrival.
These are the bread and butter scenes of Black Lightning. There’s a lot going on in this short scene: There’s the policeman with good intentions putting his life on the line every day for a pittance while a smooth-talking man of the cloth lives off the coin of his followers, even if he was once an outspoken activist. Neither man is wholly in the right, and neither is completely in the wrong, but it’s up to Pierce to attempt to bridge that divide. Extend that aspect of the storytelling to other characters and even whole communities in Black Lightning and you have a good understanding of the show’s core message, one it needs to further embrace going forward.
What Black Lightning could use less of, however, is bizarro scenes like the one that took place between Pierce and high school student Khalil (Jordan Calloway). For context, Khalil and Pierce’s daughter Jennifer (China Anne McClain) are planning to have sex for the first time, a fact that Jennifer revealed to her parents over dinner in a very funny/awkward scene. This isn’t the scene I’m talking about since it’s actually refreshing to see a CW superhero series that’s unafraid to tackle real-world dinner table topics. The WTF moment of the episode, however, was Pierce stopping Khalil in the hallway at school, asking him to describe the step-by-step process of how he showers and dries off, and berates Khalil for trying to give his daughter “Athlete’s Foot where Athlete’s Foot shouldn’t be.” Pierce then smiles like a cat-eating canary afterwards. WTF, indeed. Not only was this wildly inappropriate for a school setting and the relationship between Pierce and Khalil, it was just downright creepy. I tried to laugh my way through it, but nope. Scenes like this also undermine the strong messages that Black Lightning is trying to deliver, whether it’s as broad and systemic as racial injustice or as specific a lesson as hygiene and safe sex practices.
I’m hoping that the “Athlete’s Foot” scene is an exception to the rule and not something that’s going to be repeated in future outings. Black Lightning has a lot going for it and can remain a strong superhero series going forward if it sticks to its core values and really hammers home its message. If, however, it gets distracted by playing into some of the more bizarre aspects of CW silliness, that will be to its detriment. I’m sure you have opinions on this, so feel free to share them in the comments below!