With the imminent release of Black Panther on the horizon – can’t wait! – and a general shifting toward the listening to the voices of minorities in western civilisation, the landscape of film and television is affording more opportunities for fare that would not have found a large audience outside of its particular niche.
With the popularity of superhero films in cinemas and its filtering to television and subscription services, the once niche market of comic geekery is now known to all. Netflix, to their credit, have been at the forefront when it comes to programming in the superhero genre. Having predominantly screened Marvel fare – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders – with the exception of the risible Iron Fist (review here), the comic book adaptions have been good to great, Marvel continuing to prove that their grasp of the genre is solid.
Black Lightning is the latest addition to DC’s roster of televisual super beings. Unlike their filmic output, DC’s television shows have been strong, with Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Heroes of Tomorrow all established shows. As I mentioned before, it seems with the race to embrace minority friendly content, DC have dug through their archives of characters and found the little known – even amongst comic geeks – character of Black Lightning.
As a black person myself, I embrace the advent of minority programming and love seeing people on the screen I can readily identify with. That being said, three episodes into Black Lightning it is difficult to find much to be excited about. In fact, there is so much wrong with Black Lightning, it is difficult to know where to start.
Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is Black Lightning, a meta-human able to generate electrical beams, lightning, from his hands. He is also an expert martial artist. None of this is addressed in the show, I learned it all on Wikipedia. How he came to be Black Lightning, his origin story, is not even alluded to. We meet Jefferson as a high school principal in Freeland. He has retired from the superhero/vigilante game, feeling he can help more as a pillar of the community. He also knows that it was being Black Lightning that broke his relationship with his estranged wife Lynn (Christine Adams) as she could not bear the thought of him being in danger every night.
Elsewhere his youngest daughter, Jennifer (China Anne McClain) is getting close to a young, would-be, gang banger, LaShawn (Al-Jaleel Knox), cousin to local dealer and area boss of the notorious one hundred gang, Lala (William Catlett). When LaShawn takes Jennifer to see his cousin, trying to impress her, Lala embarrasses him and insults Jennifer. When later on Jennifer is caught up in a gang-related situation, Black Lightning is forced to come out of retirement. So far so cliche.
Let’s start with the costume; it is god awful, easily the worse costume of modern-day heroes. Not in anyway subtle, it is a shiny, carbon-blue coloured, motorcycle suit, with a bright lightning bolt ‘V’ on the chest. He wears goggles – GOGGLES! – as his disguise. So people, who have known him most of their lives do not recognise him with a pair of sunglasses on!
A peruse of IMDB shows a divide of opinion; many comic show fans hate the show, the biggest gripe being the acting. I feel that this is unfair as, if anything, the acting is probably the best thing about the show. Unfortunately, the actors are given not only a weak premise to work with – I will get to that – but also dull scripts. The dialogue in the show is so poor it is almost a sedative. The only actors who get to invest believably in their roles are the aforementioned William Catlett, Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III, who plays Tobias Whale and Damon Gupton as Inspector Henderson.
The show’s story and premise go for the lazy and overworked, using the old ‘gangs taking over and terrorising the ghetto/neighbourhood’ trope that is often attributed to black stories/communities. It was the same story they used in Luke Cage, though that show did have a much better script.
As well as following the black gangs and a frightened community staple, the show also jumps on the ‘empowering women’ bandwagon, as well as the wife and youngest daughter, there is also Anissa (Nefessa Williams), the eldest daughter, who is a lesbian. Notably, the lesbians in this show are strictly of the lipstick variety; utterly beautiful.
Unusually, Black Lightning has made no effort at an origin story, thus we are given a vague sense of Black Lightning as a figure of folklore, missed by the god-fearing – yep, the church loving staple is in there too – community.
I will say, as a positive, that – aside for the costume – the show looks technically good, especially the third episode. The lighting and colours look rich and deep and the editing, fight scenes and sound are top class.
Netflix has, unusually, opted to release Black Lightning week by week, unlike many of the other superhero shows. Whether the show will be able to retain its audience over its thirteen episode run remains to be seen. Whilst not unwatchable, Black Lightning is far from unmissable television. As I am a long time fan of the superhero genre, I will no doubt keep watching. Hopefully Black Lightning will find its feet later in its run.