Last week, two black men were arrested while waiting at a Philadelphia Starbucks to have a business meeting with a third (white) man not yet arrived. When the bike officers the store manager had called handcuffed them, they allowed themselves to be led peacefully out of the store. They were held in custody for nearly nine hours. Shackled, caged, fingerprinted, and ultimately charged with nothing, they were finally released in the small, pitch black hours of the next morning.
Two weeks ago, in “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion,” Black Lightning’s chief protagonist and Garfield High’s beloved head principal, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), was arrested while leading a group of his high schoolers in respect-building morning mentorship. When the corrupt cops paid off by Black Lightning’s enemies to entrap Jefferson handcuffed him, he calmly but firmly asserted that he was complying, exhorted his students and his daughters to remain calm and not fight back, and allowed himself to be led peacefully out of the school. He was held in custody for nearly the whole episode. Shackled, fingerprinted, and subjected to a dehumanizing full-cavity strip search not edited one single second for time, he wasn’t released until the following day, after Gambi (James Remar) and Thunder, a.k.a Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams) distracted the city with a hologram Black Lightning and Detective Henderson (Damon Gupton) smoked out the worst of his corrupt colleagues.
“Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” was filmed months before the incident at the Philadelphia Starbucks, but there’s nothing prescient about the non-superpowered aspects of its narrative arc. As executive producer Mara Brock Akil noted at January’s inaugural DC in D.C. panel event, these kinds of incidents have been happening to America’s black men all too frequently, forever, and are the very reason she and her husband, series co-creator Salim Akil, so fervently wanted to put a black man like Jefferson Pierce at the center of their storytelling: “The talk at the time [we were developing Black Lightning, in 2016] 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.”
So here, every Tuesday on The CW for the last several months, has been Jefferson Pierce, electrifyingly ready to respond to whatever America in 2018 throws his way. And then here, in the real world, are the two black men hauled out of the Philly Starbucks. But here, too, is the 14-year-old black boy in Michigan who was shot at for knocking on the wrong white man’s door, hoping to get directions after missing his school bus. And here, in Liberty City, are the black teens of the under-covered #NorthwesternWalkout. And here, in Sacramento, is Stephon Clark. And here, in Austin, are Anthony Stephan House and Draylen Mason. And here is, and here is, and here is…
In the end, that Jefferson’s ordeal in “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” so specifically prefigured last week’s situation in Philadelphia was less a matter of clairvoyance than it was one of chance based on grim inevitability, which is the very truth the Akils have so intensely dedicated themselves to putting on screen throughout Black Lightning’s compact first season, in which the fictional streets of Freeland have, like 2018 America, seen teen boys shot, teen girls abducted, and the lives of black men, women and children literally traded by people in power—white and black alike—who see them as nothing more than bodies to barter. The only difference is the people of Freeland have Black Lightning and Thunder, two radically pro-black superheroes, watching their backs.
This dedication has, without a doubt, been the series’ greatest strength (well, this dedication, and the show’s funky, powerful, perfect soundtrack). Frustratingly, though, it has also been its greatest weakness, as every quietly charged moment of realism—at Garfield, on the streets of Freeland, in the Pierces’ home, between Jefferson and Lynn (Christine Adams), between Anissa and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), between Jennifer and Khalil (Jordan Calloway), between Tobias (Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III) and Tori (Edwina Findley Dickerson), between Tobias and Lady Eve (Jill Scott), between Tobias and his innermost demons, between vice principal Kara (Skye P. Marshall) and her ASA bosses, between Lala (William Catlett) and anyone—pulses with complexity, and begs to be explored in full. But this first season is only thirteen episodes long, and has, you know, plot to deal with, too. And each of those complexly realized relationships listed above, they have plot to spin through. Like, at least three 22-episode seasons’ worth. But they are only given thirteen episodes, and ultimately, that has meant that a dozen storylines that might have soared given even a few more episodes of room—Anissa’s flirtation with comic geek Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy), Jennifer and Khalil’s relationship before he’s shot, Anissa and Lynn’s research into Jefferson’s dad’s secret investigative journalism, whatever the heck magical is going on with Tobias, Lala, and the dead-way-too-soon Lady Eve—have been cut off at the knees.
Almost certainly this mad rush to just get everyone on screen, doing everything, as soon as possible comes from the Akils’ anxiety over getting as much of their vision for Black Lightning out into the world as possible—no one is guaranteed a second season in this cutthroat television climate, not least shows by, about, or for marginalized and non-white communities. But it is a shame all the same. Lala should have had his own half-season before dying and returning as whatever revenant creature he’s become. The fascinatingly terrifying Lady Eve should have had the next one. Tobias should have been looming in the background of both, building steam, wooing a broken Khalil to his side across more than one act of one episode in order to logically hand the next season over to him, before the ASA took over everything. Grace should have been in more than the two episodes required to establish that Anissa has been, at least until the moment she got her powers, living her best lesbian life. At this point, the only character who has had the perfect amount of screentime for her level of complexity is Tobias’ eerily banged white lady bodyguard, Syonide (Charlbi Dean Kriek), and that’s because she doesn’t speak.
That the greatest criticism I can offer Black Lightning is “what you’re doing, but MORE” is probably good—especially since it was one of the dozen series caught up in The CW’s early renewal sweep—but only if the show, like Anissa’s gradually maturing Thunder, lets out a breath in Season Two and gives its characters and plots at least a quarter of the space to move around in as it does its sharply realistic, unapologetically radical, critically necessary portrayals of black life in America.
Tonight, meanwhile, the show wraps its breakneck first season with a standoff between the Pierce family (and Gambi) and all the malign forces, human and supernatural alike, who have fought for months to keep the radical message of love and hope they offer their community from catching fire.
Who they will be when they come out the other side, ready for Season Two? Tune in to find out.
The Season One finale of Black Lightning airs tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW. The last five episodes are streaming on The CW app, and on demand.
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.