Black Lightning – Season 1 Episode 1
The CW delivers another dose of Superhero action in the form of new show Black Lightning; the story of a middle aged man who goes back to costumed crime fighting after a 9 year absence.
Even though this show comes from the same producers as the other Arrowverse shows it doesn’t share that universe for now. The reason for that is the producers wanted to give this show a chance to stand on its own and forge its own identity without worrying about how it links in with the other shows. It’s a smart move as it immediately allows for a more intimate story and a tighter focus on the world that starts to be created in this episode.
The protagonist is Jefferson -hereafter known as Jeff- Pierce (Cress Williams); a high school Principal who used to fight crime under the alias Black Lightning thanks to his electricity themed super powers. There are numerous reasons for him walking away from crime fighting but the main one was that he saw his daughter look on terrified as he recovered from a brutal beating.
After that he decided that there was a better way to do things and became an educator. Jeff is reluctant to don the costume again because he feels that he has done more good as a high school Principal than he ever did as Black Lightning. He has used a position of respect to improve the lines of young people in the city of Freeland and has managed to create a comfortable life for his daughters.
All of this is very positive and presents something unseen in the superhero genre, certainly on TV. The rest of the CW superheroes are relatively young and haven’t had that experience that makes them want to try something new -though Oliver Queen has come close of late- so this take on the superhero certainly stands out.
The episode spends a lot of time building the setting and it really pays off. Freeland feels very lived in with distinct areas that have a character all their own and an implied history that helps carry the premise of the show. It’s clear that things are far from ideal for black people and that itself has caused a lot of the problems to escalate. The episode opens with Jeff bailing his daughter out of jail followed by him being pulled over by police because there was a crime reported in the area and he happens to be black. That’s the sort of prejudice that Jeff is fighting against and it’s so ingrained into the DNA of Freeland that getting rid of it a constant uphill struggle.
We get a sense of what Jeff has managed to accomplish through his role as an educator. He somehow managed to convince the various gangs that his school is off limits which makes it something of a sanctuary in the midst of a chaotic system that gives young people a chance to work towards reaching their potential. It’s a noble sentiment that has clearly come about after a lot of hard work and careful negotiation.
Cress Williams is great as the lead. He projects a sense of authority, dignity, decency and intelligence. He expertly balances the roles of Principal, father and superhero with each aspect of Jeff’s life feeling distinct in Williams’ performance. We even see how these come into conflict such as rushing to help his daughter in secret which prevents him from punishing her for going to a party against his wished. It’s a fine line he has to walk and I’m interested to see how that plays out.
His relationship with his daughters also feels lived in. There’s a clear hierarchy at play following Jeff’s divorce from his wife Lynn (Christine Adams). The eldest daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) takes on a maternal role in the absence of that figure in the house and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) is the rebellious teen who has to deal with the fact that her father happens to be her Principal. A relatable nightmare for anyone of school age.
The actors bounce off one another well and inhabit their roles wonderfully. I like that Anissa has an activist streak clearly inspired by her father and the work that he has done to improve the lives of everyone around but resents the fact that she has been forced to grow up more quickly than she would have liked. Jennifer has more growing up to do and her impetuous nature should be tempered once she learns more about what life is really like. That begins for her in this episode when she is almost forced into prostitution so there is already a strong foundation for family drama and character growth.
One of the major issues with a superhero who decides to return to the life of a costumed vigilante is what might inspire him to do so especially after taking such a long break. The kidnapping of his daughters is what motivates him into action ultimately but there are hints prior to that such as longing glances as TV news debates over whether the city needs Black Lightning or not. His two separate encounters with police that remind him just how racist they are also acts as a powerful motivator. The media spin after he defends himself and destroys one of their patrol cars favours them as well so everything in the setup exists to motivate Jeff to put on a costume and defend those who can’t defend themselves. It’s subtle, interesting and entirely grounded in character.
The episode lacks in villains in the traditional sense with the city itself acting as the antagonist. Lala (William Catlett) is the closest thing this episode has to a villain. There’s a great scene that establishes him as one of Jeff’s former students which establishes him as one of Jeff’s success stories to a point. After high school things changed and he is now a gang leader who struggles to keep his men in line. Jeff goes to him to get an explanation for his daughter being attacked by his cousin Will (Dabier). Lala agrees that it was out of line so clearly takes some of the lessons taught to him at school to heart and lives by them though has his own way of doing things. This is shown by him yelling at a young kid and grabbing him in a threatening manner which causes Jeff to step in. Lala pulls a gun on him and points out that Jeff has no right to dictate how he teaches others. It’s incredible how quickly Lala goes from reasonable to threatening and it serves as a reminder of how complex the setting is.
Jeff does know when to back down and doesn’t force the issue which echoes his dealing with Will who he defeats with common sense by pointing out how stupid it would be for him to try to use his gun considering the obvious consequences. It all adds to Jeff being a man who understands how the system works and uses his authoritative nature to help others realise.
The main thing that drives Jeff is the belief that he has a responsibility to show young people a way to live that doesn’t involve joining a gang but Lala believes that the system doesn’t benefit his community and the only way to survive is to be part of something that can protect you. Based on what we see in this episode it’s clear that Lala has a point though his methodology is far from morally upright.
Another villain teased in the episode is Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) who clearly pulls strings in the background but otherwise has very little presence. The tease is fine for now as it’s clear he’ll become more prominent as the season progresses. He’s almost unnecessary in the grand scheme of things at least in terms of how things are set up in this episode but it is early days.
The bizarre thing here is that the superhero parts of the episode are the weakest. They aren’t bad as such but pale in comparison to everything else that has been set up. I do acknowledge that this episode isn’t about Black Lightning as a crime fighter as such; it’s more about Jeff deciding whether bringing that persona back is necessary or not. The costumed fight sequence signifies his decision and feels a little bit like the rushed third act climax in many superhero episodes. There is an entire season to explore Jeff’s approach to crime fighting, how that affects his work/family life and the toll all of this takes on him. I was impressed at the lack of a shoehorned in origin story for the character as well but I suspect this will be told in flashback at some point. It might be interesting to learn the backstory of his partnership with Peter Gambi (James Remar).
I did like the action in this episode. Cress Williams has great physicality and the way his powers are seamlessly integrated with his hand to hand combat present the appearance of someone skilled and well practiced using their abilities in a fight. Again, there’s plenty to build on here so it’ll be great to see how the show progresses in all aspects.
A strong and confident pilot that brings a different spin to the superhero genre. Jeffrey Pierce is a great character superbly acted by Cress Williams who successfully brings to life the conflicting aspects of the character. The relationship with his family feels lived in and the actors do great in their roles with plenty of room for development. The setup of Freeland and what makes it tick as a setting is great as well. It has a lived in quality and the problems that need to be solved are clear.
The events that motivate Jeff to get back into costumed crime fighting feel natural and are well developed. His reluctance to go back to something he left behind and he will definitely use what he has learned in the past 9 years to find a better way to solve the problem. Lala is the closest thing this episode has to a villain but he’s far more complicated than that as he is broadly someone who feels let down by society and goes about solving it in a less morally upright way. The superhero aspects of the episode are the weakest but that’s because the episode is more about his return to costumed crime fighting. The costumed fight sequence feels like a rushed third act action climax though it is very early days with lots of room for improvement and development.
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