How 'Black Lightning' Approaches Important Cultural Issues

The CW's latest superhero offering, Black Lightning, is markedly different from other [...]

The CW's latest superhero offering, Black Lightning, is markedly different from other comics-inspired shows on television. Some of those differences are obvious even from just a cursory glance. For starters, Black Lightning isn't a mainstream hero in the sense that he's a household name. The show is also made by and stars predominately black actors, directors, writers, and creators.

But even deeper than the surface-level differences as compared to the network's arguably better-known heroic offerings in its Arrowverse of programs is the way Black Lightning is set in a world that looks a lot like our own. In the fictional city of Freeland, Jefferson Pierce, the high school principal who just so happens to also be the titular hero (played by Cress Williams) finds himself dealing with the same situations and issues that people across the United States are dealing with daily. Race-based police brutality, gang violence, drugs, controversy over Confederate monuments, and even alt-right protests have all been woven into Black Lightning, a move that not only opens the conversation about society overall but grounds a show about the impossible in the world of the all-too-real.

The realism of Black Lightning starts organically with elements of series creator Salim Akil's life. Ahead of the show's premiere, Akil told reporters at the 2018 winter Television Critics Association press tour that drawing from his own experiences allowed him to talk about important issues.

"I just drew from my life," Akil explained. "Jefferson is already a community-based superhero, he's already a principal, he's already a father. It gave me an opportunity to talk about things that were personal to me. I grew up in a community like Freeland. I was surrounded by those things that you see in Freeland and Chicago and Oakland. It came naturally. It wasn't a choice made out of, 'Hey this is what we want to say.' It came out of a choice of, 'This is what I know, and this is what we know so let's do what's real. Let's do what's authentic and real to me,' which I think everybody embraces. I'm appreciative of that. It's very personal to me."

How personal? In the series premiere, one of the first introductions viewers get to Jefferson Pierce is also one of the most intense scenes in superhero television. Jefferson, with his two daughters in the car, is pulled over in a traffic stop where he is quickly dragged out of his car, manhandled and given no explanation for the situation except for at the very end where it's revealed that he was pulled over and harassed largely for being black (the police officer claims that he "fit a description" of someone who had just robbed a store.) While Jefferson survives the incident, sadly others in his situation have not. Over recent years, reports of black men and women dying during or because of routine traffic stops have all-too-often been part of the news. It's because of that reality that Akil wanted to include the traffic stop in Black Lightning, via his own personal experiences.

"That actually came from a moment in my life, where I was in Santa Monica and I got pulled over," Akil told "I had been pulled over quite a bit by police officers, especially in Santa Monica and Culver City. This night, I had been working hard and it was late and I was still headed to my office to work some more and I got pulled over, and I started to drop the mask of 'This is the way I was supposed to act; I'm supposed to be safe,' and I started talking back and arguing, and they started arguing and I had a moment. I had to close my eyes and ask myself, 'Is this worth dying for?' and then when I opened them, I just took a breath and I'm still alive."

While the scene was jarring, it also set a tone for the series. Black Lightning shows a hero dealing with not with the typical supervillains, but with variations of real world struggles and how they impact not just his own life and family, but the community at large. Another example of this is the drug, Green Light. In the episode "Black Jesus", Jefferson finds one of his students freaking out in the boy's restroom. It turns out that the student has taken a drug that ends up being Green Light, a dangerous new drug that has been flooding the streets of Freeland. The student who was once a gifted and promising young man, ends up an addict trying to get clean in rehab with his chances for a better future likely dashed. Stories like this are, sadly, all-too-common in many communities, particularly with increasing issues of opioid addiction making the news regularly. Drugs and their devastation is something that viewers can identify with, making it easier to identify with Jefferson/Black Lightning, too.

Black Lightning also doesn't shy away from more controversial current events either. In "Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder", the series takes a hand at dealing with protests over Confederate monuments. After white nationalists protest an activist group's demonstration against a Confederate monument in Freeland and that protest results in the death of young woman -- potentially a nod to the Charlottesville, Virginia tragedy last year -- Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams) takes out her frustrations with a bit of violence of her own. She puts on her costume and uses her powers to destroy the statue before fleeing the scene.

The inclusion of this narrative -- and particularly a bit of dialogue when the death of the young woman is revealed -- provides Black Lightning an opportunity to use fiction as a way to become part of the national conversation about historical monuments celebrating Confederate history. By framing the show's response not in the protest or the death that results, but in one young woman's frustration at the situation on the whole, the show is able to relay a human message about the pain and frustration this kind of violence and hatred elicits. Anissa's frustrated stomp isn't just about destroying a statue. It's a stand-in for a larger, collective frustration.

Black Lightning doesn't stop there, however. It goes one step further. In the show's most recent episode "The Book of Revelations", Jefferson addresses the monument situation as well as Anissa's reaction to those she perceives as racist by trying to teach his daughter that not only are there consequences to her actions, but that just because someone's beliefs do not match hers does not automatically make them the "bad guy." By having Jefferson address Anissa's statue destroying stomp, the show sends a message that violence or simply the expression of frustration isn't the solution. Instead, the message is that even those who do not share our values are people and shooting first and asking questions later takes away the opportunity to change things and instead continues the cycles of violence. The show uses this scene as an opportunity not to pass judgment on those with different worldviews, but to offer an alternative way to approach the situation.

And that, perhaps, is the real message of Black Lightning. While it would be easy to simply use the issues the show addresses to shock audiences or push an agenda, the real point the show is making is that the things that hurt us and our communities can be opportunities, not headlines. It's a message that makes Black Lightning not just a comic book hero, but a true hero, one that we can all identify with and learn something from.

Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on The CW.