Tuesday, January 16, 2018

REVIEW: 'Black Lightning' - Jefferson Becomes a Hero Again When His Daughters are in Danger in 'The Resurrection'

The CW's Black Lightning - Episode 1.01 "The Resurrection"

Jefferson Pierce is a man wrestling with a secret. As the father of Anissa and Jennifer, and principal of a high school, he is a hero in his community. Nine years ago, Pierce was a hero of a different sort. Gifted with the superhuman power to harness and control electricity, he used those powers to keep his hometown safe as the masked vigilante Black Lightning, but he left the superhero days behind. Almost a decade later, Pierce's crime-fighting days are long behind him... or so he thought.

"The Resurrection" is an excellent premiere for Black Lightning. It does such a phenomenal job in setting up the tone of this world immediately. It moves quickly through story. But it also makes sure to linger on the characters while ensuring that their reactions are just as important and personal as the violence happening as soon as Jefferson Pierce suits up as Black Lightning once more. It's an hour that understands the importance of the visuals and the specific story it is telling. Black Lightning is about a black superhero. There just aren't that many heroes like that in the media. This is a show that puts Jefferson at the forefront of the narrative while never making him too idealistic either. He's a very complicated leading man. He's a man who has a certain perspective of the world. The world typically looks at him as a black man. A man who despite his appearance and family may still be involved in crime. A man who is judged even immediately after getting his daughter released from jail for protesting. He has a strong and strict moral code. It's a code that is suffocating to an extent for his daughters, Anissa and Jennifer. But it's also an identity that quickly stirs up debate. That's the most fascinating angle of this entire premiere. The show could just revel in the excitement of having a black man suit up as a superhero as he kicks a bunch of ass to protect the innocent of the world. But it is much more interested in analyzing this specific world and the choices Jefferson is forced to make because of these abilities and his family. It makes it so much more complex. And thus, it's much more exciting and compelling with a profound statement to make.

The local news quickly details that Freeland is a city riddled with crime. It's gotten so bad that there are now protests of the gang behind so much of the violence. That puts an immediate threat into the narrative. As it's pointed out, protesting the police is one thing but protesting a gang is something completely different. The police are still rough and dismissive. There are some horribly abusive people who have the luxury of wearing a badge. But the department still has an oath of service to uphold. With a gang, it's immediate violence that demands the death of anyone who gets in the way of criminal activities. That's the danger that Anissa is putting herself into. She believes she needs to stand up and be vocal about her disgust for this gang because it's what her community needs. She is choosing to be outspoken because she has a platform of success and she wants to make the world better. She's completely earnest and has a well-argued message. But she is also battling with her father who has seen the world and its many destructive qualities. He immediately cautions that violence will only produce more violence. It won't ultimately change anything. The people may change but the system will fundamentally stay the same. It's a message he preaches because he's looking back at his time as a vigilante with the awareness of the good and bad he did for his city. Many say The 100 gang is so bad right now because Black Lightning vanished. But Jefferson sees it as him doing more good and changing more lives as a principal than he ever did as a hero.

Jefferson carries all of this around with him. He has made his peace that he has these powers but no longer wants to use them. He still gets angry at the world. He demands answers when he is pulled over in the rain. He still has a temper that can lead to him going too far with force as well. But he's also a fierce advocate for the young minds he is molding nowadays. He's proud of his daughters - even when he is incredibly critical of their recent behavior. The community recognizes the success Jefferson is doing too. His daughters may not fully appreciate that. But they are on their own separate paths to figure out their identity in this world. They have their labels as the daughters of Jefferson Pierce. That's how this community sees them. Anissa is the med student who gives back to the school that gave her so much. Jennifer is the track star on her way to repeating the same success her father had. But they are so much more than those early descriptors as well. Jennifer is a rebellious teenager. She wants to go out and have a good time. That quickly gets her into trouble. In reacting to that, she puts on a hard exterior of not letting it faze her when it does. Anissa wants to do something instead of just having the philosophical debate on the sideline. When her sister is confronted at school, she's the one who puts the guy in his place. In that moment, it's about protecting family. But the entire school is Jefferson's family as well. He cares about every student and aims to treat them as the unique human beings that they are. He's aspirational in that way while also being a bit cruel to his own daughter for breaking school protocol in this instance.

But again, Anissa gets her fighting spirit from her father. When the family is in jeopardy, she steps up and acts. Jefferson is the exact same way. He argues that Black Lightning wasn't the hero this city deserves. He was simple a hero reacting to all of the violent things happening because of the criminal organizations. It was all a personal mission for him. He put on the suit in order to take down Tobias Whale, the man who runs the local gang and who killed his father. He accomplished that mission but kept finding a new cause that needed his action. There was always some new criminal element popping up in this community. It came at the risk of his own family. He was on the brink of death when he needed to make the decision to give all of this up. It still didn't save his marriage to Lynn. They still got divorced. But it's abundantly clear that they still care deeply for each other. He believes they can get back together as long as he doesn't put on the heroic persona once more. He believes he's doing phenomenal work as principal. But one of his former students, Lala, is actually the new leader of the gang who is causing trouble for Anissa and Jennifer. He's the one taking responsibility for the horrible actions of his cousin, Will. This conflict escalates so quickly throughout the premiere. And yet, it feels so genuine as well. Jennifer and Anissa are smart and strong black women. But they are still sexualized and oppressed by the male criminal elements of this world. They are fighting back but that only puts them further in harm's way.

It makes it all seem like putting on the Black Lightning outfit will just be a one time thing for Jefferson. He does it by the end of this premiere because his daughters have been abducted by The 100. He used his powers earlier in order to save Jennifer from a life of being abused by this criminal system. That ultimately led to him taking out his frustrations on the two police officers who arrived. That's a powerful image that shows that Jefferson has a lot of pent up frustration and anger that he can let out through these heroics. He does that again in the final sequence. He puts on the new outfit. He jumps into the scene and immediately starts taking out the criminals who stand between him and his daughters. He does that with the permission of Lynn as well. She knows what's at stake and how Jefferson can help. She gives him permission to put on the persona once more. She does so thinking it won't be a permanent thing again. Jefferson has the exact same idea. He is doing this for his daughters. He storms this hotel and is able to save them pretty easily. It's a lot of fun seeing him in action. He has the superior fighting skills plus the technology to stop any bullets that come his way. But once it's all over, he notes that the family isn't safe quite yet. Lala isn't the man who took Anissa and Jefferson. But he is the man in charge who is still pushing back against Jefferson's demands for a safe zone at the school. Of course, the premiere reveals that Lala really isn't in charge at all. That distinction still falls upon Tobias Whale. He's still alive and needs to know if Black Lightning is still a concern he needs to deal with. It's an enticing final note for the episode. But the focus also remains profoundly on this specific family. They are reunited. But there are more secrets than ever before. Jefferson has become Black Lightning again - even more than Lynn is aware of. Plus, Anissa is starting to exhibit her own superhuman abilities. That's a fascinating tease that will more than likely indicate her following her father into the vigilante life.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Resurrection" was written by Salim Akil and directed by Salim Akil.
  • This show fits well within The CW's brand of superhero shows. But it also stands apart because of the more serious tone as well as the lead character being at a different place in his life. It's different and I'm not sure The CW's audience will go for it. But this show absolutely should be a success. It's so powerful and important while also being a new take on a very familiar and specific genre.
  • It's definitely going to be odd knowing that the main gang for this season is called The 100. That name already has a place on this network as a separate show. Fortunately, the two shows won't be airing at the same time. The 100's new seasons doesn't start until Black Lightning's ends. But it's a weird detail nevertheless that I'm surprising someone at CW development didn't insist on changing.
  • Jefferson's friends who recognize him for his hard work as a principal include a state senator as well as the chief of the police. Those are some powerful friends to have. They are friends he has as Jefferson Pierce and not as Black Lightning. But it's also important to note that Black Lightning is a wanted criminal being hunted by the police which will definitely complicate these relationships.
  • Jefferson also has a father figure who is an older white man working as a tailor. It's interesting that that is the kind of character the show wanted in that role as advocate for Jefferson becoming Black Lightning full time again. Gambi is pushing for that by sending Jefferson videos praising the work the hero once did. He's there for support while providing the new suit. It's a relationship that provides Jefferson opportunity which should be explored further in the future.
  • Jefferson is still interested in reconciling with Lynn. He feels that attraction happening once more. Even when he's lying to her about using his powers as Black Lightning again, he feels unable to make that commitment to her. He could enjoy the lying by having the best of both worlds. But he also feels the pressure to cover up the injuries he gets in the field so that she doesn't learn about what he has been up to.