Black Lightning and the Power of Intentional Blackness in Superhero Television

Black Lightning and the Power of Intentional Blackness in Superhero Television
Pictured (L-R): Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce, Cress Williams as Black Lightning and China Anne McClain as Jennifer Pierce — Photo: The CW — © 2017 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

When the news of a Black Lightning television series initially surfaced, the muddled reaction of excitement tinged with trepidation was one that I think many nerds of color deeply appreciate. The feeling is a little more involved than your everyday cautious optimism; it’s about knowing the importance of seeing contemporary heroes of color onscreen and praying that their respective networks harbor that same understanding. Toss in the fact that this will be aired on the CW – a network that, like many other networks, has a dubious relationship with race – and that trepidation can morph into full-fledged worry. What will they censor? Will they find a way to water down its execution so much that identity takes a quiet backseat, despite premise and source material?

In short, will being Black matter?

While the question may seem silly given the subject, it comes from a place of watching CW’s DCTV block alongside other superhero shows for years. Between The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow, there are very few acknowledgments of race within the shared universe. That doesn’t necessarily have a bearing on likability, but it does point towards a lack of perspective (read: absence of voices) behind the camera. The Flash, for instance, is fun, sometimes frustrating, and brimming with enough action to anchor you to the edge of your seat. All that aside, the show never explores how justice may look differently from the perspective of the West family, the complexity behind Joe’s experience as a Black cop, or how/if racism factors into their professional and personal lives.

To be clear, it’s fine that it doesn’t. I still love those characters very dearly and feel openly protective of them. It just makes them a little less relatable in that regard.

Much like Netflix’s Luke Cage, Black Lightning centers Blackness in a way that we haven’t seen in traditional network superhero programming. It’s not reduced to a fleeting glance or a throwaway joke; it’s imbued in how Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) reemerges as the hero, how he raises his family, and all the ways he invests in his city of Friedland. Identity guides Jefferson and daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) in very different ways as they individually navigate the world around them. For once, intra-community struggle is prioritized over the safety of this sort of flat, uncomplicated perception of society that we’re used to seeing in these shows.

Within this particular environment, the very specific injustices that are routinely levied against us matter. More importantly, there’s a superhero that gives a damn. Someone with immeasurable power actually wants to fix it. For a long time, the very thought was unfathomable both within the context of superhero genre and in real life. Shows like Black Lightning and Luke Cage resonate, especially to many who feel the suffering at the hands of systemic racism is largely ignored.

The first two episodes of Black Lightning waste no time assuring the audience that the identity of this family of heroes will not be swept under the rug or diminished. Executive Producer’s Salim and Mara Brock Akil have crafted a world that is painfully recognizable in some respects, and watching Black men and women fight against familiar injustices each week will hopefully serve as a form of catharsis and empowerment (yes, even with the extra helping of superhuman capabilities).

Black Lightning premieres this Tuesday, January 16th, at 9 PM EST on the CW.

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