REVIEW: Black Lightning The Complete First Season
Did we really need another DC Comics super-hero on television? That was pretty much the thought rattling in most minds when Fox first announced development of a series based on Black Lightning. When they passed on it, the CW snatched it up (of course), and ran the short first season starting in January.
The answer is a resounding yes. The show is most certainly heroic, but whereas the other Greg Berlanti-centric series fully embrace their four-color roots, this series pivoted for delving into its ethnicity. The production team of Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil wanted something more urban, something more “street”, exploring the black experience with heavy doses of super=powers to keep you riveted. In the special feature Art Imitating Life: The Pilot Episode, Salim Akil described an all-too-familiar incident of being pulled over by a police officer and the choices a black man has at that moment. He wanted to translate that to something dramatic and make viewers understand in tangible ways.
The 13-episode series is now out in a two-disc Blu-ray set from Warner Home Entertainment well before the second season debuts in the fall. In case you missed it, this is a good chance to get familiar with the story. While there are heroes and villains, they are more relatable in some ways and they serve the black community well by showing a wide array of types.
We have the title star, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a high school principal, his estranged wife, Dr. Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams), the albino criminal Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), and Police Inspector Henderson (Damon Gupton), all petty much as depicted in the comic book cocreated by Tony Isabell and Trevor VonEeden. However, another way this show differentiates from the Arrowverse is that Pierce has two daughters, teenage Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and her older sibling, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), a lesbian and counselor at the school.
The notion of Pierce being older, with children, went beyond Isabella’s original plan but enriches the character and setting. Pierce retired nine years before the show started, in order to give his girls a normal life. He threw himself into his work at Freeland High School, making the school a safe place for its predominantly black population. That all changes when Jennifer gets caught up with a boy tied to The 100, the mob controlling the underworld, and is held against her will. Pierce suits up and gets back to work as Black Lightning, recognizing his city needs a hero.
Supporting him, in the most Berlanti-esque way is Paul Gambi (James Remar), no longer the humble tailor, but a covert operative who was involved in the government program that gave Pierce his powers and was now searching for ways to create more metahumans. Between this and the 100 spreading a drug called green light that addictively gives people temporary powers, Black Lightning has his hands full. With Gambi operating from a secret base, guiding Pierce and being a computer whiz (of course), the two pick up where they left off.
They need help and it first comes from Anissa, who has discovered her super-strength and invulnerability, suiting herself up to strike her own form of justice. When she and Black Lightning faceoff, secrets are revealed and an alliance is formed. Jennifer wants nothing to do the family business, preferring to work towards college and having a good time. However, an adrenaline surge reveals her own powers and like it or not, is caught up in the fight.
The series’ thirteen episodes touch on life in Freeland, which is where it excels. We see all strata of people and the difference good people can make. There’s the flipside, the dropouts and wanna-be thugs who contrast nicely with those just trying to get by. Most of the good guys and bad guys are of color and race is not avoided. The show is less interesting when it comes to the government conspiracy stuff in the background and with luck, it’ll be less relevant in the second season. Pierce is a little too perfect, a little too much the role model as a principal but he certainly commands the students’ respect (if only…)
The writing is certainly a cut above the Arrowverse shows with the Salim Akil setting the tone with the first two episodes then letting Jan Nash, Charles Holland, and playwright Kelli Goff among others run with it. Akil also directed the first and final episodes, again, bringing his vision to life.
While OWN’s series like the admirable Queen Sugar do a wonderful job treating the black experience with the respect it deserves, its noteworthy that many of the same issues and themes are on display here, a series more likely to be seen by a wider range of viewers, letting its message waft over us, seeping in between bouts of electrically-charged action.
The high def transfer and DTS HD audio track are just fine. The other special features include the too-short A Family of Strength, the obligatory Black Lightning: 2017 Comic-Con Panel, and Gag Reel. It would’ve been nice to have the source material explored giving Tony, Trevor, and DC their due but maybe next time. The bulk of the Special Feature time is well over half an hour of Deleted Scenes, clustered together rather than interspersed episode by episode. They’re worth a look since there are some nice character moments among the family.