It feels like 2018 is just about the perfect time for a show that features a black, lesbian superhero.
Sure, in the pilot of Black Lightning — created by Mara Brock Akil (Girlfriends) and husband Salim Akil and produced by Arrowverse mastermind Greg Berlanti — Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams) isn’t quite a superhero yet, and her queerness isn’t made explicit (but not to worry — Williams has confirmed it on Twitter!), but the entire show crackles with potential energy, as electric as the abilities of her dad Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), the titular Black Lightning who, after retiring to become a high school principal, reluctantly reclaims his superhero mantel in order to protect his daughters, Anissa and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), from the sinister One Hundred gang terrorizing their neighborhood.
Black Lightning has found a way to make the typical superhero origin story, already depicted endlessly on television shows and in movies (and reboots of movies) fresh: by bypassing it altogether. We don’t learn in the pilot how Pierce gained his supernatural abilities; we don’t get a scene where a mobster kills one of his family members and he vows revenge. And thank god; we don’t need to see any of that to be fascinated by a story of a man trying to do right by his family. And so we’re treated to a well-produced, moralistic story about what power and “doing good” means, especially as a black man in a society in which laws have been built to systemically oppress him.
A standout scene in the pilot shows Pierce being pulled over by policemen in the rain, with his daughters in the car, brutally yanked from his vehicle and cuffed, guns pointed in the face of his children because there had been a robbery nearby and the only descriptor had been “black man.” His superpowers become a way for him to channel his frustration, his only silent revenge against the people who threaten him with a bullet if he were to talk back.
And all of this is before we get to see Anissa, the queer radical activist, come fully into her own as the super-heroine Thunder. For now, we just get actress Nafessa Williams’ charisma and spot-on big sister impulses. The Pierce family dynamic is so compelling that even if Jefferson Pierce had no powers beyond great motivational speeches, this show would be a worthwhile watch. Black Lightning balances humor with all-too-necessary social commentary (why are white masked crime-fighters “heroes” when Black Lightning is called a vigilante?) to make a refreshing addition to the superhero TV pantheon. A–