The CW's 'Black Lightning' offers an electrifying superhero facing tough issues

The CW's 'Black Lightning' offers an electrifying superhero facing tough issues
Cress Williams as Black Lightning in a scene from the CW series "Black Lightning." (Guy D'Alema / The CW)

It's no coincidence that the CW's latest offering in a successful string of superhero series premieres the day after Martin Luther King Day.

The hero at the center of "Black Lightning" is an African American educator who prefers to counter systemic racism, inner-city violence and corrupt law enforcement through peaceful means.


But when the lives of his family and community are threatened by a ruthless criminal operation that encompasses all the above, the retired superhero must make a tough decision: continue to fight the good fight as a local high school principal or dust off the old mask and use the lethal high voltage coursing through his veins to level the playing field.

That tension powers the first couple episodes of "Black Lightning," a thrilling, smart and pop culture-savvy series that bounces between present-day politics and escapist fantasy that debuts Tuesday.

Based on the '70s DC comics of the same name, the hour-long series joins a small but powerful group of black superheroes arriving on the big and small screens this year.

Disney's highly anticipated film about Marvel's "Black Panther" is due next month, and Marvel's bullet-proof "Luke Cage" returns to Netflix for a second season later this year. Starz is also currently developing a "Black Samurai" series.

The potential for "Black Lightning" to be heavy-handed yet shallow was high, because it tackles complex issues of race and power on the same platform that gave us "Riverdale."

Though "Black Lightning" employs a similar formula as the latter — tucking topical allegories inside larger, action-packed narratives about family dynamics and high-school life — the stakes are higher here in wake of #BlackLivesMatter and the rise of white nationalism.

"Black Lightning" successfully walks the line between advocacy and entertainment thanks to deft storytelling and a sense of when to be obvious and when to pull back.

The series, created by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil ("Being Mary Jane") and executive produced by Greg Berlanti ("Arrow," "The Flash"), follows Black Lightning, who retired from fighting crime years ago in his fictional city of Freeland after it wreaked havoc on his personal life and marriage.

He traded the mask for a suit and tie and is now simply respected high school principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams). He channels his pent-up need to help the community into enriching the lives of the predominantly black student body. That is until a powerful gang known as the 100 forces the conflicted father of two to tap back into all that dormant ampage.

Making matters more urgent, the gang's thugs have targeted Pierce's daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), who themselves are no shrinking violets. When Pierce's negotiations go nowhere, it's Black Lightning who shows up to save them. But violence begets violence, and his actions open up a Pandora's box of wrongs that need to be righted.

Some of the more charming scenes here arrive when older folks in the neighborhood recognize Black Lightning and welcome him back, but not before admonishing him: Where have you been?! After all, if he doesn't defend the community, who will? Apparently, no one, because crime skyrocketed in his absence.

Music is strategically deployed throughout the show. Heady soul numbers by artists like Maxwell for thoughtful moments, the booming bass of hip-hop — courtesy of acts like Kendrick Lamar and ASAP Rocky — when the young folk meet in clubs and a smattering of disparate styles from elsewhere, including the dance rock of DNCE and trip-hop favorites Portishead. The teens also pepper their conversations with a rap-music shorthand that baffles their parents.

"Black Lightning" also plays with dueling perspectives about race. On a fictional TV news show in the series, a commentator — played by TV One host and former CNN personality Roland Martin — wrestles with the distinction between vigilante and hero when the subject in question is African American.

The CW, which already has "Arrow," "The Flash," "Supergirl" and "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" under its utility belt, adds a new dimension to its superhero universe with "Black Lightning." This electrifying avenger couldn't have picked a better time to return to the fold and shock some sense into a world gone mad.


'Black Lightning'

Where: The CW

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)