Gird your loins. We have something important to discuss.
— Nafessa Williams (@NafessaWilliams) January 2, 2018
A new female superhero. A black female superhero. A lesbian superhero. A black lesbian superhero. On network television.
Whew, I had to sit down for a moment. My head just went spinning.
Last night we were introduced to Anissa Pierce, the black lesbian superhero soon-to-be called Thunder, one of the three central protagonists of the CW’s midseason stunner, Black Lightning. The show follows the Pierce family. Jefferson Pierce, whose superhero alter ego is the show’s titular character, is the divorced father to two daughters; Jennifer, a high school track star; and Anissa, a 20something medical student and activist. He’s also the principal of a charter high school that’s a safe haven for the young people in his hometown, which is otherwise overrun with gang violence. Anissa volunteers there as a health teacher three days a week.
The Pierces are seen as community leaders and heroes. Jefferson has a deeply held secret, that nine years ago he was a hero of another sort — Black Lightning. He has the superhuman ability to harness, control, and amplify electricity. He hung up his superheroing ways to become a stable family man. His daughters each have genetic super powers of their own, but we aren’t supposed to know that yet…. Or are we?
I’m getting ahead of myself. When we first meet the Pierce family, Nina Simone’s rendition of Billie Holiday’s iconic “Strange Fruit” plays while Jefferson and his youngest daughter wait together in a police lobby. Above them, the television news tells us that there have been 125 shootings in 48 hours due to the notorious One Hundred Gang. A public protest has sprung out of the frustration over the lack of responsible policing to protect the community. The background music choice is significant, layering a song most famously associated with the lynchings of black bodies with a protest about protecting and valuing black life.
The Pierces are there to pick up Anissa, who was a part of the protest. Upon her release, she quips to her little sister, “that’s my dress.” The teenager rolls her eyes playfully in response.
Driving home, we find out that Jefferson is pissed at his daughter for being at the protest in the first place. He gripes that there were blown out windows and buildings on fire. Anissa argues that the regretful property damage is still peaceful compared to the actual murders being committed by the One Hundred and the negligence of the police.
“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” Jefferson reminds his daughter, referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Anissa shoots back. She’s quoting the black female civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer.
I’m sure that Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the show runners, had no way of knowing that Black Lightning would premiere the day after Martin Luther King Day when they wrote that exchange, but it adds another layer of bite to the already strong commentary.
It’s raining and cutting through the darkness of night are the flashing red and blue lights of the police siren as the Pierce’s car is pulled over by two white officers.
The girls panic as their father is forcibly removed from the car, a gun pulled on them.
Jefferson begs that they don’t shoot, that everyone just calms down. Jennifer puts her hands up in the air, a demonstration that she means no harm as the police lights blind her from the backseat. Anissa pulls out her phone to film the cops. She knows her rights, she wants to protect her family.
Jefferson yells at her out of fear, tells her to put her hands on the dashboard. She remains steady and unmoved. He tells her, “Do It NOW” and she relinquishes, but keeps her eyes on the officer, ever defiant.
Seconds later the officers release Jefferson, explaining that it was a case of mistaken identity. A liquor store nearby was just robbed. Jefferson won’t let them off that easily. As they remove the handcuffs from him, he bellows, “I’m sure the description was what? A black man, dressed in a suit and tie, in a midsize Volvo wagon?”
The officers walk away, but we see Jefferson’s eyes turn electric blue as he struggles to contain his outrage and anger. He clasps and unclasps his fists, and we watch all the electric power in the police car in front of him zap- the red and blue lights turned blackout — it’s only for a second. Jefferson closes his eyes, regains control.
Jennifer cuts back in with overhead narration, “This was the night, in the rain, with thunder and lightning as a witness, that Black Lightning was born again”
It’s key that she describes “with thunder and lightning as a witness.” On the surface level, its a reference to the literal rain storm happening around them. But, it’s also a clever play on the superhero names for Anissa (Thunder) and Jennifer (Lightning), that we will discover throughout the first season.
All of that action happens in the first FIVE MINUTES of the show, before the title credits even come to air. If it seems I spent a long time detailing it in my review, there’s a reason. The layers of this opening exchange are unlike any other I’ve seen on television. In addition to establishing the Pierces as a cohesive and chemistry laden family unit, it parlays layers upon layers of black commentary, the kind of which most other shows would parcel out over multiple episodes. It also establishes Black Lightning and both of his daughters as superheroes within a context of real world stakes, as opposed to fantastical allegory. It’s all very slick and incredibly addictive.
When we next see the Pierces, later that same night, Jefferson is being awarded at a community banquet for his service as principal. In the middle of a glowing speech being given about her family, we see Jennifer skipping out on the ceremony to put on heavy make up and tight clothes with her best friend, Keisha, in the high school bathroom. Keisha makes fun of her, telling her “ain’t nobody got time for the ‘Queen of Garfield High.'”
It’s cute. They’re cute. It feels like the kind of teasing I remember doing with my high school friends when we felt young, and free, and fast. The girls are breaking out for the night. They get busted by Anissa, who immediately chastises them.
The girls tease Anissa, calling her Harriet (as in Tubman, because she’s overprotective and always trying to lead them to “the cause”). The first time they slide the nickname into the conversation, I almost missed it. By the third time, I choked on my own laughter. Mara Brock Akil has a real gift for capturing black female intimacy and friendship, both of the Akils have a talent for black dialogue. They write black people and social dynamics in the ways that black people actually talk in real life. It’s not a necessarily flashy skill, but it’s important and real. That skillset is on full display in Black Lightning.
After some begging from her little sis, Anissa agrees to let the girls sneak out to a friend’s house party, as long as Jennifer promises to be home by 10:15. It’s sweet. Too bad, Jennifer wasn’t telling the truth. She was never going to a house party. She was going to Club One Hundred, to lie about her age, smoke some green and dance with cute, dangerous boys.
Of course, the boy Jennifer ends up flirting with, a skinny beanpole named Will, turns out to be a drug dealer for the One Hundred. Of-freaking-course.
When they get pulled into Lala’s (a lieutenant in the gang) office, Will does nothing to protect Jennifer, even when Lala ponders having the teenager start doing sex work to help pay off Will’s debt. That’s fine, because Jennifer is perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She promptly knees Will in the balls and declares, “No the hell we are not good. I’m not hoe’ing for nobody”.
You go, girl! Jennifer stands up for herself at every turn, I truly adore her.
Meanwhile, Jefferson is coming to save Jennifer at the club. He’s forced to use his Black Lightning powers as a gun shootout occurs. Jennifer gets home safely, but doesn’t know that her father was the one who saved her.
Leaving the club, Jefferson is stopped by the police. They tell him to “get your black ass on the ground”. His eyes flash at their racist statement, and you know they picked the wrong one to mess with.
He shocks them and sets their car on fire, walking away as the rap chorus of the show’s theme song plays, “This is for the ‘Hood. Black Lightning’s back.”
The thing about Jefferson is that he’s protective of his daughters, arguably overly so. While I’m happy he was there to help Jennifer when she needed it most, I’m worried about how the show is going to approach that aspect of their relationship moving forward. But it’s also clear as day that his girls love him. They go on morning runs, hoping to out race each other, they smile and laugh and hug. The love between them is palpable, even from the first episode.
Will the drug dealer finds Jennifer the next day at school. She rightfully calls him out on his stalking and walks away.
He scoffs, “Why do black girls gotta have so much attitude” and before he can blink Anissa is on his ass. First of all, no one touches her baby sister. Second, no one is gonna call a black woman outta her name.
She tries to confront this idiot verbally, but he grabs on her instead, so she punches him in the gut, swings him over her head by his own arm, and drops in on the ground. Did I mention she’s wearing hot pink heels at the time? She kicked his ass in hot pink heels. This is the superhero I have been waiting for.
Of course, Anissa gets in trouble with her father for the incident. There is a zero violence policy on school property, and the drug dealer almost pulled a gun on all the students in a rage response to Anissa. He is worried about keeping his daughters alive. She endangered the whole community, and I get that, but man it was so cool.
Later, Will breaks into the school and kidnaps both Pierce girls in the middle of the day by gunpoint. The fact that, amidst this larger arc about gang violence and policing, one of the biggest dangers for these two young black women is a man who will not take “no” for an answer and responses to public humiliation with violence is the most realistic takeaway of them all.
When I was a teenage girl growing up in the metro Detroit area, there were two shootings that, thankfully only indirectly, affected my friendship circle. Both of them started when teenage girls said “no” to a young man who didn’t like their answer. The ever-present threat of male violence, it hangs in the air.
Will takes the girls to the Seahorse motel, hoping that selling them into sex trafficking will pay off his debt. But, there’s no time for that. Black Lightning, fully suited up for the first time, is hot on his trail and he is taking no prisoners.
He rips through the motel in a high adrenaline sequence, ZAP ZAAAPING and BING BANGING every drug dealer and pimp in his path while 1970s soul music plays in the background. The girls are saved, and in my favorite superhero trope of them all, look directly into the eyes of their own father and do not recognize him! Because, ugh? He has on goggles? And a indigo blue suit with a lightning bolt across the front? OK. Sure, Jan. Whatever you say.
A comic book happy ending for us all.
Except for this one thing, both Pierce sisters are sound asleep sharing Jennifer’s bed after their long, dangerous day. Anissa wakes up in the middle of the night. She’s having PTSD, reliving the worst parts of her kidnapping time and again. She leaves Jennifer and heads into the bathroom, gripping on to the porcelain of her sink as she spirals deeper into her panic attack, her breath quickening, sweat on her brow.
That’s when we see it. Her fists flash red beneath her skin. And she BREAKS. THE. SINK. IN. TWO.
Lightning, meet Thunder.
“I’m really proud to tell the story of a young lesbian on TV,” Nafessa Williams, the actress portraying Anissa, shared with Shadow and Act earlier this month. “Not only will young girls get inspired, but (it will) also impact how parents accept a gay daughter of theirs.” She’s got it. She’s ready to win over my heart, and I am very ready to let her.
I’ve already seen a press screener for next week’s episode and I solemnly swear that we are going to have some HIGH LEVEL lesbianing happening on our screens that you won’t want to miss. If you didn’t see the premiere of Black Lightning, which gave the CW their highest rated debut in two years, you have a week to catch up! You can stream it for free on the CW website.