The new CW network show Black Lightning displays all the usual trappings of a superhero television show: the self-doubting hero-with-superpowers who is torn between his duty and his loved ones; the over-the-top Evil Villain who rules the dark underworld of crime in an unnamed city; the older, super-smart Albert-type who makes cool tech stuff for the hero (and picks up the pieces when the hero occasionally hits the Epic Fail wall. Oh, and, of course, the corrupt police department that just gets in the way of justice.
But Black Lightning is different in at least one way. Like its upcoming big screen big brother BLACK PANTHER, this show’s hero—and almost all of its cast—is black.
And before you shrug, I want you to think about that statement. Many of us are old enough to remember when the presence of Nichelle Nichols in the cast of Star Trek was a big deal. It was just a couple of years ago when #OscarsSoWhite made the rounds. Although efforts have been made to be inclusive, it’s still rare to find people of color in leading dramatic roles, much less dominating entire shows. Shows like Underground (about the Underground Railroad), Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar (about a black family in modern-day Louisiana), or Atlanta (an Emmy Award-winning dramedy starring Donald Glover) are critically acclaimed celebrated, but still have to work to find their audiences.
So, when the science fiction world recognizes that diversity is a good thing with a show like Black Lightning, I’m all for it. (Not to mention how excited I am about the movie BLACK PANTHER, which looks absolutely fantastic!) The show has its faults. The acting is so-so; the characterization and plotting is pretty cliched; and I’m not sure what to say about the fact that the tech expert is an old white guy. But watching first few episodes of BL I was reminded why we all fell in love with superheroes in the first place.
The setting for the show is a town in the grip of a crime gang called The 100, a gang against which the police appear to be powerless. Young men are dying, drugs are rife, businesses are forced to pay protection and no one is safe on the streets. Hope is scarce among the families of this town, whose children are frequently lost to the gang’s violence or drugs. The only oasis is the school whose principal was once secretly Black Lightning.
The superhero is called back into service when the streets get so bad his school and his family are threatened, and when marches and appeals to the corrupt mayor and the police don’t help. In effect, the superhero must act when all other hope is lost.
Way back when two kids from Brooklyn, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first came up with the character of Superman, the world was similarly in need of a hero. It was 1938, the depths of the Great Depression. Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany and poised to take over Europe. Japan was menacing Asia. Things looked bad for Our Side. Superman was a True American Hero—Faster than a Speeding Bullet! Able to Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound! And, not incidentally, standing for Truth, Justice and the American Way.
Americans needed hope in that moment, and something to believe in. Before the country went to war with the Nazis and the Japanese, we Americans didn’t know if we could succeed. After all, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Chinese had all failed. The British and the Russians were barely hanging on against what appeared to be superhuman villains. It really seemed we needed superpowers to defeat them.
Turned out we had those superpowers in ourselves—in the courage of the soldiers fighting in the field, in the sacrifices of the people rationing and working in factories and collecting rubber and metal at home. But maybe we found some inspiration in that fella in the cape, too—at least the kids reading the comics under the covers at night did.
I don’t think it’s any surprise that we seek out superheroes on big screens and small these days, either. Things are dark and not so hopeful out there right now, and maybe we need a few Supermen and Wonder Women and Black Lightnings to lend us courage for the fight ahead, whatever it might be. Just until we find our own superpowers. And if those heroes look like us—if they happen to be female, or black, for example—that’s even better.
Spacefreighters blog partners Greta Van der Rol and Pippa Jay were among the winners of the 2017 SFR Galaxy Awards announced this week! Woo hoo! Huge congratulations to both these authors for their well-deserved honors. Check out all the details on their awards here.