Commentary

Power To The People: CW's 'Black Lightning' Is Electric

That cat Black Lightning is a bad mother-[expletive-deleted].

Forgive me, but my brain’s powers of free association can sometimes lead me down unpredictable pathways -- in this case, toward the theme from “Shaft” as I watched the first episode of the new African-American superhero series, “Black Lightning,” premiering Tuesday night on The CW.

The fact is, this show -- adapted from a DC comic book series -- has nothing in common with the 1971 movie about a suave African-American private detective who sticks it to organized crime in Harlem.

However, in “Black Lightning,” the hero's foe does happen to be an organized gang, but the scenario here is decidedly contemporary, complete with racial overtones that are thoroughly modern, and also complicated.

Played by Cress Williams, Black Lightning is a reluctant superhero who has not donned his superhero costume or taken on any bad guys in nine years.

But lately, an out-of-control gang has gained sufficient strength to threaten the community in which Black Lightning -- real name Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal -- enjoys a middle-class lifestyle.

When the gang threatens his own daughters, it's clobbering time. Specifically, it's lightning time because Black Lightning's principal power is his ability to harness and control electricity.

He can suddenly shut if off to create havoc in a nightclub or seedy motel, and he can immobilize attackers with lightning bolts shooting from his hands.

He is also adept at kung-fu fighting -- “fast as lightning,” you might say, which revives memories of another piece of ’70s music, “Kung Fu Fighting” from 1974. 

The 1970s are never mentioned or even hinted at in the premiere episode of “Black Lightning,” although the episode was chock full of creative touches.

For openers, the show takes place in a fictional city called Freeland. Like elsewhere, the African-American community of Freeland has an uneasy relationship with the local police force, despite the fact that the chief inspector happens to be black.

Adding to the ambiguity and complexity of the show's depiction of racial issues, conflicts and differences, the violent chieftain of the local gang is African-American, but it turns out he has a boss over him as well.

This boss emerges as a polyglot on the ethnic color chart -- an albino African-American whose two closest gunsels are both white, one male and one female.

It may also be worth pointing out that Black Lightning's real name -- Jefferson Pierce -- is derived from two presidents of the United States, both of whom had roles to play in the way race relations evolved in the decades before the Civil War.

In many ways, “Black Lightning” seems designed at least in part as an allegory about power, since electricity is literally power and Black Lightning has the ability to shut it down and use it to his own advantage over others.

The good people of Freeland ought to be glad Black Lightning is coming out of self-imposed retirement to generate some power that they sorely need right now.

As for “Black Lightning” the TV show, the new year is still young, but this show is the best new show of 2018 so far.

“Black Lightning” premieres Tuesday night (January 16) at 9 Eastern on The CW.

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