Tuesday, January 23, 2018

REVIEW: 'Black Lightning' - Jefferson is Motivated into Action by the Community in 'Lawanda: The Book of Hope'

The CW's Black Lightning - Episode 1.02 "Lawanda: The Book of Hope"

As the community struggles with the violence surrounding them, a glimmer of hope appears: Is Black Lightning back? Noticing the changes in the community, Lynn is also left wondering. While Jefferson struggles with his decision, Gambi urges him to take up the mantle once more and return to life as Black Lightning. Anissa and Jennifer try to deal with the aftermath of their jolting experience.

It's fascinating how these opening episodes of Black Lightning have focused so intently on the debate of whether or not Jefferson Pierce should take up the mantle of Black Lightning once more? The show starts at a time of personal turmoil for this city as the gang violence has only increased. Gambi is pushing for Jefferson to become the hero once more while Lynn is advocating against that because of how destructive it became for Jefferson. All of this could be a really annoying quality for the audience as well. To us, it seems inevitable that he will become Black Lightning and go out every night trying to stop crime in his city. Otherwise, there simply would be no show. And yet, these episodes have made it a point that the personal lives of these characters are so much more important than the amount of time Jefferson spends wearing the mask. This is a show that understands the powers that Jefferson has. It can showcase them remarkably well during the fight sequences. But it's being very wise in not overindulging in those elements just yet. It understands the importance of staying with these characters as they are all affected by this crucial decision. Stretching the debate out to the second episode could be a mistake. It mostly means that "Lawanda: The Book of Hope" follows the exact same pattern as the premiere. But it also makes the audience aware of just how much thought is put into this decision and the cost that it will have for Jefferson's personal life.

In the premiere, Jefferson became Black Lightning once more because it was personal. His daughters were abducted by Will and Lala. He needed to do whatever it took to get them back. He did so with the support of Lynn. She knew what she was asking of him but needed her daughters to be returned safe and unharmed. And now, she's there dealing with the aftermath of that decision understanding the role she played in Jefferson's current plan. It's crucial for the audience to understand that Jefferson isn't in the peak physical shape he was in when he was previously the city's hero. But his powers also have some side effects to extended use as well. That's a crucial detail that could become quite important over the course of the season. Jefferson is in pain. He's in agony because of the decision that he made. But he's also in agony because of the indecisive nature of his current life. He wants his family reunited and to be Black Lightning. But he can't have both. And now, he's faced with protecting even more families in this community. Will and Lala are still the main villains that Jefferson has to deal with. They've taken another girl and forced her into prostitution. But this time, there is no personal connection for Jefferson. He has to make his decision based on what's the right thing to do.

It's so important that Lynn is an active part of that conversation as well. She could easily come across as the wet blanket wife who refuses to let the main protagonist have all the fun he's suppose to have in the premise of the show. That's a frustrating character type. But this show finds a way to include her in the conversation that validates her concerns. She has frequently been framed as the reason why Jefferson stopped being a superhero. He made that decision for his family even though it wasn't enough to ultimately keep them together. And now, they are on the verge of a reconciliation and these thoughts of heroics are creeping into his mind once more. They've gotten so close because of the threat against Jennifer and Anissa. They are in the same physical space acting like a family once more. It's nice. They both enjoy it very much. There is still so much love in this relationship. But again, it comes at such immense cost. Jefferson feels the pull to put on the outfit and be the hero this city needs right now because of all the tragedy happening around them and the system being too ineffective to do anything about it. Jefferson has that conversation with Lynn before he goes out again. She then voices her concerns to Gambi about how destructive this decision will be for Jefferson. In the end, that's enough for her to have her own agency. Yes, she's predominately worried about Jefferson. But it's all through the context of knowing the realities of living with these powers.

Lynn even treats being Black Lightning as an addiction for Jefferson. This is him simply experiencing a relapse. They are so close to coming together as a family once more. But now, he's questioning whether he has done any good at improving the community solely as a principal. He can argue that Lawanda's life hasn't improved at all. She's still stuck in this neighborhood dealing with gang violence that has corrupted her daughter. She tries to make a difference and take action. That only gets her killed. That's a shocking moment that proves the somewhat one-note villainy on display with Lala. He's a man who thinks he's in control and who confidently kills people who get in his way. But the narrative is always aware that he is just some trivial kid who got a small taste of power and wields it in a deadly way. He's not the man actually calling the shots. He just has enough power to truly ruin people's lives. He does that in an instant with Lawanda. Her death motivates Jefferson into action. He feels the compulsion to act because he was unable to do anything through his connections as a respected member of the community. That title has gotten a lot of talk over these first two episodes. But it's mostly proved that he's much more effective in an immediate way when he's Black Lightning. As such, that fosters a debate over which way is better? Are immediate results what's required? Or is long-term investment in the improvement of this community?

It's also abundantly clear that Jefferson has no patience for the police doing their jobs effectively and in a timely fashion. It's such a surprise when Henderson shows up as Black Lightning is confronting Lala in the end. The hour presents evidence for how the police can build a case against Lala for the death of Lawanda. But the audience doesn't actively spend time with Henderson. He's simply seen as Jefferson's friend on the force who keeps him updated on the various tragedies happening in this world. There's just been a lot of talk about what he can't do. He needs to protect people's rights even when that means allowing certain criminal behavior to continue. His hands are tied in so many ways. And yet, he's still an effective officer in the end because he was able to track down Lala. Jefferson has his ways and so does Henderson. Jefferson has to flee the scene or risk being arrested. He has to leave Lala behind knowing that he won't be the one exacting justice on him. Instead, that is the police's responsibility. This episode proves they can be effective at their jobs. But it also highlights the corruption of that institution. The hour ends with Tobias just being able to walk straight into the precinct and kill Lala with his bare hands. That's such a gruesome and chilling visual. It teases just how much control and influence Tobias really has. He has no time or patience dealing with Lala's continual problems. He just creates more and more problems without being as smart as he thinks he is. Tobias is the boss who comes in to clean up the mess to ensure he doesn't talk. He's the kind of enemy that Black Lightning will have to face because the police is crippled by this corruption. That places value back on Black Lightning in this cause while still highlighting the morality at play. He is needed to go to the lengths the police can't go. But pushing himself beyond that line could have dangerous consequences for him and his family as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Lawanda: The Book of Hope" was written by Salim Akil and directed by Oz Scott.
  • I'm incredibly curious about the specific circumstances in which both Tobias Whale and Black Lightning believe the other to be dead? That's the reason why they've been allowed to operate in the shadows for the past decade. But it's also not the case because they are still both in action and are bound to clash once more very soon. That's a detail of the past that still needs to be explored.
  • In addition to telling the story of a black superhero rediscovering his power and importance, this season will also be telling the origin story of a black gay superhero. That's just such an empowering story that really starts coming into its own here. Sure, Anissa may have some relationship problems of her own. She doesn't have as much time for her girlfriend as her activism. Her discovering her powers may only increase that. But it's also so thrilling to see her as a hero in this story. That visual is so powerful.
  • It really shouldn't be surprising that Gambi is an expert with technology in addition to tailoring skills. He did craft the new suit for Black Lightning after all. But it's still a tad odd to see an older white man as the one hacking into police databases and using cellphone data to track suspects. It's a crucial role to help Black Lightning. Plus, he has a connection to Jefferson's past. It just goes against the norm for that character type.
  • Jennifer continues to spiral as well. She just wanted to be a teenager rebelling against her parents. Instead, she was abducted and saved by a superhero. That experience is changing her. But it's also forcing her to drink. She has a friend who rightfully calls her out for that destructive behavior. That friend also wants to be her boyfriend, so it may quickly become very compromised. But it's a fascinating story thread nonetheless.
  • Jennifer also offers the explanation for how people can be staring right at Black Lightning and not know that he is Jefferson Pierce. Both Jennifer and Anissa saw him in the premiere but don't know that their father is a hero. Jennifer says looking at him is like looking at a spotlight. That could also explain why Henderson doesn't recognize Jefferson as Black Lightning in the end either. That moment could just play as him realizing that this truly is Black Lightning back after all of these years away.