Superhero 'Black Lightning' Brings Social Conscience And Swagger To Primetime

Jan 14, 2018
Originally published on January 14, 2018 5:08 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the first time in decades, a primetime TV show will star a black superhero. "Black Lightning" is based on a DC Comics hero. It debuts Tuesday on The CW Network. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it's a show that brings social conscience, family drama and a little bit of swagger to the superhero world.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Black Lightning" just might be the first woke network TV superhero show. Cress Williams plays Jefferson Pierce, a former Olympian, high school principal and retired secret superhero. Here he's driving his daughters home after one of them was arrested during a protest-march-turned-violent. First, they argue over the issue by trading quotes from civil rights icons.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK LIGHTNING")

CRESS WILLIAMS: (As Black Lightning) Returning violence for violence multiplies violence.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) Dr. King. And I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.

WILLIAMS: (As Black Lightning) Fannie Lou Hamer. But that is not the point I'm making.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIRENS)

DEGGANS: Then he's pulled over by police.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK LIGHTNING")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Get out.

WILLIAMS: (As Black Lightning) OK. Look. This is getting out of hand. Now, this is the third time this month...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) Hey.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As character) What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (As character) Get your hands off my dad.

DEGGANS: Handcuffed in the rain, Pierce challenges the idea that he looked like a robbery suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK LIGHTNING")

WILLIAMS: (As Black Lightning) And I'm sure the description is what, a black man dressed in a suit and tie, getaway car - a mid-size Volvo wagon?

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRICITY CRACKLING)

DEGGANS: That's sizzling sound you hear is Pierce's power, the ability to generate blasts of electricity, building up as he struggles to suppress his anger. It's an ongoing theme of "Black Lightning," a strong, principled man of color constantly under pressure. He promised his ex-wife years ago he would stop using his powers and stay safe, but rising gang violence in his neighborhood pushes him to tell her he must put on the costume and take out the bad guys as Black Lightning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK LIGHTNING")

WILLIAMS: (As Black Lightning) Do you remember what you said when we discovered my powers? You said it was a gift. It's still a gift, and I intend to use it.

DEGGANS: It's a superheroic version of the pressures and choices black people face everyday. Executive producer Salim Akil based the traffic stop scene on an incident he experienced himself. Speaking from the show's set in Atlanta, Akil says the program will juggle several distinct storylines, including Pierce's daughters beginning to display their own superpowers.

SALIM AKIL: We're going to get into the proliferation of drugs. We're going to get into who, what and why those drugs are in our community. We're going to also get into, how do you raise or help your children who have special abilities?

DEGGANS: "Black Lightning" answers the question many comic book fans have asked over the years. In a universe where superheroes save the world daily, why don't any of them stop by the hood and tackle crime there? Other superhero shows on The CW feature non-white characters in key roles, but this is their first superhero series centered on black people and black culture. Pierce fights gang members in a fictional town named Freeland, a mostly-black community isolated from the interconnected worlds of "Arrow," "The Flash" and "Supergirl."

There's lots of Isaac Hayes and Isley Brothers songs in the show's soundtrack, evidence that the networks bet money to make the show sparkle. The show's crime boss villain, Tobias Whale, is a black man who is also an albino played by Marvin Jones III, a rapper and musician with albinism. Jones says the character's albinism allows the show to talk about prejudice and stereotypes inside the black community as Tobias reacts to feeling like an outcast.

MARVIN JONES III: He is a black man with a deep-seated need for love and acceptance based off of his uniqueness inside and out. He kind of holds those things as grudges and motivation for what he is and what he does.

DEGGANS: It all adds up to a magnificently-layered universe that fans of superhero TV have rarely seen before, a place where a black superhero not only takes on criminals but the stereotypes and prejudice that divide us all. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.