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Much of the Arrowverse has no real parallel in our world. The fantastical universe built around Green Arrow, The Flash and others is perhaps the closest thing to comic books on TV: a knotted, self-referential mess of alternate timelines and hand-wavey pseudoscience that doesnt have time to be topical in between space-time shifts. In its final season, following a year of unrest over police violence, Black Lightning couldn't help but pull a little bit of the outside in for its season premiere. The first episode of the season takes on the death of Elijah McClain, inserting the titular hero into that very real tragedy.
Black Lightning creator Salim Akil said he felt moved to add a police brutality plot to the episode while watching the summer of protests.
“I was really emotional and touched by everything that was going on,” Akil told TVLine. “I couldn’t just do the show and not try to participate. So many people were putting their lives on the line, you know, young people. This is how I typically go about protesting and getting involved.”
McClain was a 23-year-old massage therapist who was killed by police in Aurora, Colorado in 2019. Officers confronted him while he was walking down the street and things quickly escalated. Though the caller that reported him said they didn't believe him to be a danger and that he was unarmed, three officers wrestled him to the ground and held him in a chokehold. At some point, he was injected with a sedative. While on the ground, he repeatedly told officers he couldn't breathe and vomited, apologizing to the officers for doing so. McClain eventually lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital. He was declared brain dead and passed away shortly therafter. Footage of the inciting incident was unavailable. All three of the officers claim their cameras fell off.
In the premiere episode, McClain’s stand-in is stopped by police. When the series’ superhero comes upon the scene, he asks police to leave the young man alone.
“I was watching this video and he was such a beautiful soul,” Akil said of his decision. “I saw a video of him playing the violin for cats. What a sweet soul. And then I saw the video where he was pleading with officers and it had a profound effect on me along with all the people in the streets.”
In the Black Lightning version, police turn on the superhero. He shocks them with bolts, allowing the man to escape.
“I was motivated by that and I wanted to see him live,” Akil said. "The idea to me was if we had someone like Black Lightning, they would still be alive today.”