Please note this review contains very minor spoilers.
Probably the strongest series premiere of The CW’s superhero lineup since The Flash, Black Lightning is electrifying in its debut. The new series, created by Salim and Mara Brock Akil, is swiftly paced, immediately draws you into its world, and is unapologetic in its direct approach with regards to police brutality and race. Set in the fictitious city of Freeland, Black Lightning’s premiere sets a strong precedent for what’s to come, builds up a great comeback for the title character, and introduces the issues it will deal with in the coming season.
Interestingly enough, the series doesn’t begin with a flashback to nine years ago, when Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) stopped being Black Lightning after his ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), said she could no longer be married to him given the dangerous path his life had taken. Instead, Black Lightning begins with a news segment detailing the happenings of the 100 gang–later revealed to be run by Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III). And it’s then we realize Jefferson and his youngest daughter, Jennifer (China Anne McClain), are watching from a police station, waiting for his eldest daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), to be released after being arrested protesting the gang. One can appreciate that the series doesn’t start off in the past and gets straight to the point of what’s happening in Freeland in the present. In this way, it introduces Jefferson, Jennifer, and Anissa, along with the conflict of the season, all at once.
What’s refreshing about Black Lightning is that it dives right into real-life issues that other superhero shows tend to stay away from. Given that this series has far more African American writers, it’s in the right hands to delve into things like police brutality, racial justice, etc. And showrunners Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil do not shy away from these things, but lean into it. Jefferson, after hanging up his Black Lightning costume for nine years, is fed up with sitting on the sidelines after his daughters are kidnapped by Lala (William Catlett), a higher-ranking member of The 100 gang. “I tried to do it the right way,” Jefferson says to the police at one point before taking them out and you can see he really, really tries to suppress all of his anger surrounding the escalating tensions and violence in Freeland, to try and play by the rules even when it seems like it isn’t doing much. It’s in this vein that the show already feels darker and grittier simply because it’s more timely and relevant than other shows.
Besides being refreshing, the series premiere gives us background stories for the Pierce family with a promise to expand on everything later. There’s Anissa, who is a part-time teacher at Garfield High School (the same school Jefferson is principal of), and a medical student. It’s clear to see she has the same sense of justice her father has and she’s also fiercely protective. But even though she takes after her father, Anissa is also frustrated with Jefferson taking more of a back seat in terms of what’s happening. Anissa feels she’s more active when it comes to community issues, whereas her father isn’t. “When did you abandon your people?” she asks, and it’s a far more weighted question than she knows. Anissa never refuses to back down even when a gun is pointed in her direction. Nafessa Williams gives a great performance and truly showcases the essence of the character and it’ll be exciting to see how she expands on her characteristics throughout the season.
Meanwhile, Jennifer is more of an outward rebel in that she doesn’t like being labeled the “Queen of Garfield High” simply because her father and sister work there. She’s headstrong and does things on her own terms, even if that means lying to Jefferson and Anissa about where she’s going. Still a teenager trying to carve out a life of her own, a lot of the conflict that arises is because of this. But even while she makes very teenage-like decisions, Jennifer can hold her own and immediately realizes when a situation suddenly takes a turn. China Anne McClain portrays her with a sense of fierceness sprinkled with a little bit of attitude. The glimpses into Anissa and Jennifer’s relationship is genuine. The two characters interact in a way that many sisters do and their kinship is immediately believable. Even when they argue, the adoration they have for each other is very palpable.
Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce is equal parts charming, kind, and formidable. Called “Black Jesus” by Lala, he’s very protective of his daughters and students and doesn’t allow anyone to get in the way of their safety. He’s a man who’s still trying to do the right thing despite no longer being Black Lightning. Jefferson is a man who knows what he wants–to make his students and family feel safe, to ensure they all have bright and well-educated futures, and to get back with his wife, Lynn, whom he still loves deeply. Williams and Christine Adams have very intense chemistry. They may no longer be together, but the fire is most certainly still there. The only major criticism I have is that Lynn isn’t seen interacting much with her daughters and of the Pierce family, she’s the least developed thus far, so I hope her character and relationship with her daughters are further expanded upon in the coming episodes.
Finally, there’s Jefferson’s relationship with Peter Gambi (James Remar), his father figure and tailor. Gambi is the only one who seems to want Jefferson back in the field as Black Lightning. At first, it seems nice that he really believes in him enough that he wants him to suit back up, especially when it seems Jefferson’s relationship with Lynn teeters on the fact that suiting up could mean the complete erasure of all Jefferson had been trying to regain. However, it’s also… a bit suspicious of Gambi. Only time will tell at this point how deep their bond is and what their history involves, so we’ll have to wait and watch it unfold.
Ultimately, Black Lightning is electrifying and doesn’t miss a beat. Getting to know the characters and their world flows very smoothly along with the storyline and, even though it’s only the first episode and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of these characters, the sense of knowing who they are is already being explored in a way that gives them depth. The series takes on some serious issues and it’s exciting that the Akils will be addressing them while still accessing the superhero aspects of the show as well. Black Lightning opens strong and the cast meshes well together. It has a lot of potential, especially given that Jefferson isn’t a newly made superhero, and it’s already breaking new ground for The CW and the superhero genre. Expectations are high for the series and it’s clear after watching the premiere that the hype is well-deserved.
Black Lightning airs on Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.