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'Black Lightning' is electrifying pulp fiction

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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The latest addition to the CW’s superhero lineup, Black Lighting is immediately distinctive from Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow — and not just because Black Lightning’s title character is African-American, although that’s crucial. Lightning is distinguished by its instantly distinctive blend of social realism and sense of humor — it is simultaneously the most relevant and the funniest of the CW/DC Comics shows.

Black Lightning stars Cress Williams in the title role, as well as Lightning’s alter ego, high school principal Jefferson Pierce. A middle-aged guy who’s just trying to do a good job as an educator and as the single dad of two daughters, Pierce hasn’t been Black Lightning for almost a decade — the superhero life contributed to the end of his marriage, and he wanted to retire from busting criminal heads. In the great tradition of reluctant heroes, however, he’s forced back into action when his daughters are put in danger.

When Pierce becomes Black Lightning, his eyes glow with electrical currents; jolts of crackling power rumble throughout his body. That body is covered by a sleek black costume with the requisite lightning-bolt decorations that any decent superhero would have, and these are courtesy of Peter Gambi (James Remar), a tailor who’s sort of the Alfred the butler to Black Lightning’s Batman. Black Lightning in action is a heck of a lot of fun. Yes, he’s got a sparky superpower, but he unleashes it via good, old-fashioned knockout punches. There are a number of well-staged fight scenes in the two episodes made available for review, with knock-down, drag-out fisticuffs conducted between Lightning and members of the terrorizing 100 Gang, led by the effectively menacing Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III, who in his other career raps under the name Krondon).

The series was adapted from the DC comic book by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, who have worked on Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane. They foreground the racial life of both Jefferson Pierce as a citizen and Black Lightning as a public figure. Early on in the Tuesday-night pilot, Jefferson is pulled over for a traffic stop (the third time in a month, we’re told) and racially profiled. As he’s unnecessarily cuffed and treated roughly, Jefferson’s eyes begin to glow with smoldering electricity, but he maintains his cool — it’s a witty yet tough-minded way to acknowledge that even superheroes are tempted to lose it when they’re also black Americans. Later, as a costumed defender of justice, there is immediate media skepticism — it’s assumed that Black Lightning is more an out-of-control vigilante than a true-blue hero.

The temptation is to refer to this show as an update of blaxploitation movies of the 1970s such as Shaft or Black Caesar, complete with its classic soul/R&B (lotsa Al Green music on this soundtrack). But in fact, there’s nothing exploitative about this black pop-culture product. Jefferson Pierce comes across as a fully fleshed-out character, and we are immediately caught up in the social lives of his daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain). It’s no spoiler to say that Anissa will ultimately become a superhero called Thunder, and it may be that this young protagonist will be the one who maintains the attention of the young-demo viewers who tune in to the CW’s superhero line-up.

There’s a funky bluntness that redeems some of the inevitable superhero clichés. When Pierce dons a new, gleaming version of his Black Lightning costume, someone refers to him as “some guy in a Parliament-Funkadelic getup.” And when, more seriously, he warns a young black youth who is brandishing a gun, “The police don’t care who you are — they will shoot your black ass for fun,” the stakes on Black Lightning feel real.

Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on the CW.

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