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‘Black Lightning’ joins the CW’s suite of superheroes

Television Critics Diary: Network revives the ’70s DC Comics superhero ‘for the culture’

PASADENA, California — A black superhero has finally joined the CW’s ever-expanding DC universe, and his name is Black Lightning.

It’s probably best not to make him angry, unless you’re really into being electrocuted, but you can see for yourself when the series debuts Jan. 16 at 9 p.m.

Black Lightning is different from the CW lineup of superhero shows because its focus is on a hero who considers himself to be retired. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is the principal of Garfield High School, a safe space from the violence that’s plaguing his community, called Freedland. Freedland has been under attack from a gang called The 100, led by a villainous albino named Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) who maaaaaaybe has some issues with black people even though he is one.

For instance, in the midst of an evil tirade, Whale refers to one of his lieutenants, Lala, as “thick-lipped” and a “darky.”

Pierce has tried to put his Black Lightning days behind him — he got tired of being seen as anti-cop. And his ex-wife and the mother of his two children (played by Christine Adams) left him because she thought he was addicted to being an electrified vigilante. But he’s pulled back into his alternate identity to save daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), who keep getting into scrapes with Whale’s goons. Black Lightning, which is inspired by the original 1970s DC comic, begins with Pierce realizing his indignation with police violence and gang violence are bringing the blue flash back to his eyes.

The show gets more interesting as Anissa realizes she may have some superpowers of her own. That’s not a secret — the CW has already released images of Anissa dressed as Thunder.

“You know, you have a superhero with her hair in cornrows,” said co-executive producer Salim Akil. “That’s for the culture.”

At a panel discussion here Sunday, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans winkingly asked married co-executive producers Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil why they decided against recreating Black Lightning’s curly Afro.

“You know, if I put that Afro in there, black people would’ve ran me out of town,” Salim Akil said. “You know damn well if I put in that Afro —”

Mara interjected. “ — Or with chest hairs out. We can’t do that. No. No.”

“You know, if I put that Afro in there, black people would’ve ran me out of town.”

Although there’s no Afro, there are nods to the ’70s comic in the show’s music, as well as the car driven by Lala (Will Catlett).

The Akils, the couple behind Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane, were on hand with Williams and the rest of the Black Lightning cast for one of two CW panels at the Television Critics Association press tour. The group was bubbly and energetic, which temporarily mitigated the cloud that’s hanging over the network at the press tour. That cloud comes from Andrew Kreisberg, the former executive producer and co-creator of The CW’s suite of superhero programming — including The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow and Supergirl — who was fired in November 2017 after allegations of sexual harassment from multiple staffers.

Kreisberg worked closely with Greg Berlanti, the executive producer in charge of the DC universe on the CW, who also has a co-creator credit on Black Lightning.

“I know a lot of you asked for journalists here at CW day to find answers on some of the darker disappointing deeds behind your favorite shows and just know that many reporters here are *trying,*” tweeted Vanity Fair senior writer Joanna Robinson, addressing the CW’s conspicuous lack of an executive Q&A with CW president Mark Pedowitz. “I promise you.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is a senior writer covering arts, entertainment and culture for The Undefeated. Christopher Eccleston is her favorite Doctor Who.