Eight things to know about the CW's 'Black Lightning' (January 16)

Posted Thursday, January 11, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The CW already has "The Flash," "Supergirl" and "Arrow." On Tuesday, the latest superhero to join the network is descriptively, obviously different: "Black Lightning," shot in metro Atlanta.

The D.C. Comics character, which debuted in 1977, was groundbreaking at the time as the first African-American star in its lineup. Four decades later, the TV version of Black Lightning can indeed shoot lightning from his fingers and manipulate force fields.

But for Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams) the burdens of being a superhero cost him his marriage. As a result, he buried his powers for nine years. Unfortunately, when the show begins, a vicious gang (called "the 100," not to be mistaken for the CW show) takes over the city of Freeland and threatens his two daughters.

So Black Lightning returns and it's both mentally and physically exhausting for Pierce, who awakens at the start of episode two in massive pain. His ex wife feels a mix of guilt and empathy for him as he lays on the bathroom floor. She said when she learned he had super powers, she was thrilled. But "what I thought was cool almost destroyed us. When I see you like this, I feel really selfish."

Here are eight notable points about the show:

Race will not be ignored: Salim Akil, the show runner and co executive producer of the show, is a black man who has had success with previous shows such as "The Game" and "Being Mary Jane," also shot in Atlanta. He did not want to sugarcoat the realities of urban life for blacks. He created an early scene where Pierce gets pulled over by a cop and is treated disrespectfully. But he did not use  his powers. He (barely) kept his cool.

"I wanted to create something folks can identify with," Akil said. He said he tells his kids that "racism  is not your problem. You didn't invite that s***. That's s*** people are putting on you. You let them deal with it. It's a disease, a horrible disease. You aren't infected. You treat them accordingly. That's sort of the way Jefferson is. Because I get stopped by the police, I see them affected by the disease. Viewers are going to see that."

Akil also has a debate in his own head about violence as a means to an end or as a means to protect freedom vs. peaceful strategies. "I've seen the results of extreme violence in my own life," Akil said, referencing his time growing up in Richmond, VA. "I know what violence really is. I know when a gun is shot. I know what dead people look like on the street. Nobody has ever fought for freedom and gotten freedom without a certain degree of violence."

The name is not his own: "He didn't name himself 'Black Lightning,' "Akil said. "He doesn't necessarily like that name. It was something given to him. Later in the show, he'll say, 'Why don't they call me 'Lightning'? Why put the black in front of it? We get to talk about those things."

A lifelong dream for Williams: This is the first big lead role for Williams at age 47. And he has wanted to play a superhero since he was a child. "The script gave me chills," he said. "It was rooted in so much real life. It fit me. I am the same age and I have kids." He gets to play a strong father figure, a strong but kind principal and a super hero. As a principal, he said Pierce believed through education, he could fix the town, that he could save more lives in that role than as Black Lightning. That isn't necessarily true.

A fun villain in Tobias: Tobias is a white man and former corrupt politician who loves nautical themes (e.g. a harpoon and a fish tank full of piranhas) and has no problem saying "darkie" and "Negro" to one of his black underlings. He now lives in the shadows. Actor and L.A. rapper Marvin "Krondon" Jones III insists his character Tobias is not a racist. He just feels like an outsider: "I have this disdain for my own people who aren't as intelligent as I may be, as accomplished."

"The fun thing of playing a villain," he added, "is seeing the human side, the vulnerability. I like to see that layer of insecurity, of tenderness, of need. My character needs to be loved, to be accepted."

Black Lightning -- "The Resurrection" -- Pictured: China Anne McClain as Jennifer Pierce -- Photo: Mark Hill/The CW -- © 2018 The CW Network, LLC. All rights reserved.

Atlanta connection: China Anne McClain, who grew up in Atlanta, plays Pierce's rebellious younger daughter Jennifer. She cut her acting teeth on the Disney show "A.N.T. Farm." "She's very impressionable," McClain said, of her character. "She wants to live her own life and be independent. Sometimes, that means hanging around some bad people." McClain is just thrilled to be in her hometown:"Atlanta really captures the energy of the show. I'm happy we got to shoot here."

Wait- didn't we see that in "The Kingsman"? Peter Gambi, the man who helps create the Black Lightning outfit, is a tailor who has technical expertise. His basement is a mix of digital and analog technology e.g. a holographic table next to soldering irons. He is a family friend, a confidante and mentor who encourages Pierce to get back into the superhero game. "He's a man with a purpose," said actor James Remar, who said the source of his funding remains mysterious. He said he is a bit like Q in the James Bond movies.

Nafessa Williams plays Pierce's daughter, who becomes Thunder. CREDIT: The CW

Family ties: Of course, Pierce isn't the only one with superpowers. That's not a surprise. His oldest daughter Anissa (played by Nafessa Williams) a justice-seeking college-age organizer who also happens to be a lesbian, will eventually become Thunder. In the first two episodes, her power only begins to reveal itself and Williams said it will take awhile before she reveals the powers to her family members. In the meantime, she will be researching the issue, utterly clueless it's genetic. She is a huge fan of the character: "she's very empower and inspiring at the same time."

And the issues with Pierce's daughters brings him closer to his ex wife Lynn. Will they reunite at some point? Christine Adams, who plays Lynn, said she isn't so sure. They have mutual love and respect but she worries he is addicted to the rush of being a super hero. "He's an adrenaline junkie," Adams said. "It became untenable. She had to walk away the first time."

Early reviews are positive: So far, television critics are enthusiastic about the show based on the first two episodes. Allison Keene of Collider raved: "It’s positive, it’s victorious, it’s complicated, and it’s badass." Robert Rorke of the New York Post: "An entertaining, edgy piece of escapism that adds some much-needed diversity to the network’s lineup of white-bread soap operas." Rob Burlingame of ComicBook: " 'Black Lightning' is prestige TV using the iconography of superheroes to comment on our modern society and, on some level, our obsession with big strong men who will use force to come and save us." Deadline.com's Dominic Patten : " 'Black Lightning' is lightning in a bottle and not to be missed for a sense of where the CW is going and the state of America 2018, for better and worse."


About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
I cover local radio and TV for both the print and online editions. I write a blog on the same topics.Rodney Ho's Radio & TV Talk blog (new) | Recent archiveSports...