Editor’s note: This review contains light spoilers from the series premiere of Black Lightning.
Here is a list of all the people who have a silhouette and smile like Cress Williams:
1. Cress Williams
Were it not for this very significant obstacle to suspending disbelief enough to buy that any person in Freeland, let alone Jefferson “Black Lightning” Pierce’s own children, would see the Cress Williams-portrayed vigilante superhero and not immediately think, “Duh, that’s Principal Pierce/Dad,” I would be giving The CW’s newest, boldest superhero series, Black Lightning, a rating even closer to perfect.
As it stands, Black Lightning’s stellar, heart-pounding post-retirement outing will have to settle for an even 9.0.
It’s good to always have greater heights to strive for.
In case you’ve been stuck in one of STAR Labs’ definitely illegal metahuman containment cells for the past year and haven’t already seen ads and trailers across the Internet, all over The CW, and even in NBA commercial breaks, Salim Akil’s Black Lightning series is bringing to life not only the first black superhero to lead a live-action DCU television property, but the first lead who is a superheroing veteran, the first who’s a father of grown children, the first who’s regularly, physically affected by the systemic evils festering in the community he’s sworn to protect. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) may have taken on the crime lords and criminal politicians plaguing the darkest corners of Star City, but as a rich white man in his non-vigilante life, the only Glades-born violence he had to worry about facing when he walked out his front door was that which was personally directed at him as a poorly disguised vigilante; Jefferson Pierce—a black man living in what might as well be Belair-Edison or Inglewood or Ferguson, for all that the series is unflinchingly reflective of both gang and police violence indiscriminately threatening black communities in our real world—has no such luxury.
As I reported in my coverage of DC Comics and Warner Bros. Television’s DC in D.C. 2018 event, executive producer Mara Brock Akil has discussed how important it was to their storytelling process “to put the black man at the center of the story, especially at the time we were developing it [in May, 2016]. Not to dismiss black women, because heaven knows, we have our own issues—but the talk at the time was all about what was happening to black men, especially with police brutality, gang violence. It was affecting them at a higher rate, and yet there was no fictitious character on television responding to that in any way. And that was important to us to get that in there.”
This commitment to responding to the violence and discrimination that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing, nonviolent activism is nowhere more evident than in the first five minutes of the pilot episode, “The Resurrection,” in a scene in which a suit-wearing Jefferson Pierce, driving with his daughters to a school fundraiser in his mid-sized sedan, is pulled over in the pouring rain by aggressive, almost smirking white patrol officers chasing down the “suspect” of a liquor store robbery.
After Jefferson’s yanked onto the street and handcuffed so that the lead officer can drag him back to the patrol car for the elderly Asian witness to stare at through the window, after two other officers tensely aim their service weapons at the worked up Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), stuck behind in the family car, the pent up rage Jefferson feels at the base unfairness of the world becomes so palpable that its crackling release—through the bubbling up of his latent powers of electricity—offers an equally palpable catharsis to the audience. For white viewers who have never been subjected to such nakedly terrifying discrimination, the viscerality of what builds this scene is likely novel, and hopefully sobering for the realization of that fact. For black viewers—at least, for the passionate black audience in the premiere screening with me at the end of the DC in D.C. 2018 event—the viscerality of how this scene ends, with Jefferson able to physically and proportionately react to the officers profiling him and putting his daughters in danger in a way that no non-superhero could ever get away with in real life, is teeth-rattlingly cheer-worthy.
The rest of the episode follows Jefferson as he realizes that the sick, cyclical status quo is still leading kids straight into the 100 Gang terrorizing Freeland’s streets and threatening his school and daughters, and that both the status quo and the 100 Gang (and the gang’s ultimate comically villainous kingpin, Tobias Whale) obligates Black Lightning’s resurrection. But it’s in this scene, right at the top, that Akil and the rest of the team behind Black Lightning demonstrate the electric lengths to which they will go to say to real black men and families and communities who have never seen themselves truly reflected in DC’s (or anybody’s) superhero stories until now, We got you.
This is not to say that Black Lightning won’t also be fun—that, too, is the gift of a superhero story; even when your costumed vigilante is fighting such soberly realistic enemies, he is still a costumed vigilante. And in Black Lightning’s case, he’s played by the infectiously charming Cress Williams, on whom the joy of playing a superhero has not been lost for one moment:
“Uh…crazy?” he told moderator David Betancourt during Saturday’s Shades of Heroism panel, when asked how it has felt taking on the mantle of one of DC’s most recognizable black superheroes. “Dream come true? You know, I wasn’t aware of Black Lightning before hearing about the script being written. I wanted to play a superhero badly, and in my mind, you know, there was like a short list. And you kind of start going through it and you’re like, okay, well, Luke Cage got taken… OK, OK, well… Ah, there goes Black Panther, uh… But then when this came to me—well, selfishly, I think he’s the best. I’m so excited just to play these dimensions and play this character.” And the suit? “Well, when I first put on the suit, in this little industrial area/special effects shop, and I saw myself, I just literally wanted to run through the wall. I was just like [poses athletically], I was ready to, ah… We got kids in the audience… I was ready to FIGHT, I’ll put it that way.”
Speaking of that (extremely great, if not particularly identity-obscuring) suit: A very good twist in the premiere’s first half is after Jefferson gets injured at the Club 100 shootout (sorry, that’s a spoiler, but also what did you think was going to happen in a superhero’s resurrection origin story but a shootout that injures him just as he is considering getting back in the game?), he goes immediately to see his very own Magical White Man, a old clothier named Gambi (James Remar), who stitches him up in the underground vigilante atelier he has hidden behind the false wall of bespoke leather shoes in his shop upstairs, and who I presume will be revealed shortly to be codenamed Phantom Thread. (I haven’t seen the film, but assume it can’t be about anything but a shadowy vigilante’s right-hand clothes man. Don’t @ me.)
Gambi soliloquizes quite convincingly on how important Black Lightning was to the city before his retirement nine years prior, and how much more acute the need is for him now. And then he flips around a double-monitored sketchpad Felicity Smoak would be proud to call her own and reveals he’s got Black Lightning’s sartorial comeback all ready.
Good thing, too: By the premiere’s end, one of Jefferson’s daughters will already be awakening to her own proto-vigilante superpowers. Gambi’s genius is about to be needed elsewhere…
Black Lightning premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW, and will air following The Flash on Tuesdays for the remainder of its 13-episode first season.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.