“Black Lightning” Episode 101 Recap: Are You Ready for a Black Lesbian Superhero?

Gird your loins. We have something important to discuss.

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?

Sexy school teacher fantasies by day, sexy superhero fantasies by night.. but shhhh! It’ll be our little secret!

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.

Listen girl, I have nothing against a little recreational marijuana. But maybe not in a club associated with a major violent gang, you know? Just a gentle suggestion.

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.

http://dailydcheroes.tumblr.com/post/169797148623/dont-touch-the-pierce-sisters

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.

http://dctvladies.tumblr.com/post/169798370144

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.


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Profile gravatar of Carmen Phillips

Carmen is a black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but has left large parts of her heart in Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow at night. She believes that the revolution is coming, and it’s going to be wearing really awesome eyeliner. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 35 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. I literally just finished watching the pilot! I like that it’s not an origin story and instead focuses on an established hero coming out of retirement. The show hasn’t been on my radar until now so I don’t know if Anissa’s story will involve her coming out or if she’s already out. I love a good coming out story but I hope she’s already out and we see how that is reflected in her activism. Sidestepping the origin story/coming out arcs and focusing on what comes after would definitely help set Black Lightening apart from other superhero shows. Either way I can’t wait to see where the show goes with Anissa.

    • I definitely agree re: not having a central origin story sets it apart from other shows. I had to cut it from my review for time, but one of the things that really interested me was their focus on the personal “sacrifice” required for public good, you know?

      It’s a whole different level of stakes to know the toll it will take on you and your family to do this “great thing”, but then decide you have to do it anyway. Because if not you, then who else? I hope that they explore those parts of “re-entry” more as the show moves forward.

      And I CANNOT WAIT to see where we go with Anissa! I’m very interested to see how being gay effects her activism and her personal relationships as we move forward.

  2. “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.”

    All of that ^ has me PUMPED for this show. One hour in, and the real world stakes in this show have dwarfed the world-killing/history-threatening/alien-invading plots of all the other CW berlanti-verse super shows.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of charming and interesting characters scattered throughout the other shows, and some of the villains are somewhat compelling, some of the fights fantastic and entertaining, but like… a dark-skinned black family unit living in a community overrun by gang violence and an apathetic police force (esp one that houses officers who gleefully profile even the most recognizable and respected in the community, and an officer who “jokes” that his comrades might bust your head for giving them grief, but “at least we aren’t the 100”!) who use their public and private personas to navigate and alleviate the tensions that surround them? And two young black women defending themselves against an entitled little man with access to a gun and a super fragile ego? One million times more relevant and interesting to me than supernazis slapping each other around or whatever.

    Also, the whole cast is really hot? They found Scooter living his life decades after splitting with Khadijah and now he has a hot ex wife with a wonderful voice and two gorgeous daughters? Cool.

    Also! Anissa! A canon black femme lesbian superhero, accepted and loved by her family and a romantic partner, and flourishing professionally/academically????? I’m in.

    The dialogue, the casting, the premise, the characters. All. So. Promising.

    Glad you’ll be recapping this wonderful journey for us!

  3. I LOVED the sister’s dialogue in the beginning, everything about their interactions felt so natural. I find black lightening’s costume to be ridic, thats my only gripe about this freakin awesome show that i’ll prob get over it once i’m done with this comment. For a first episode, this show was done really really well. I’m so impressed and can’t wait to see where it goes.

    I too noticed his protectiveness, he follows them on his phone? Like come now. I also loved the little dig about black women being so bothersome. I like that it was included, it seems that only black women cry out over the misogyny that black men commit and I’m here for every misogynistic asshole getting his due.

    wonderful, wonderful, recap!

    • I love the Pierce sisters so much already! Like you said, they feel so natural with each other. They had the right amount of sass with each other, but also love. I’m so into it!

      (Yeah, his costume was a slow grow for me as well. But now I don’t even notice it anymore, so I hope the same for you, too! lol)

  4. Watched this last night and really enjoyed it for all the aspects you called out in your excellent recap. I’m excited for this show. I also love the real world stakes that have been set, and I’m a sucker for family drama. But the characters and their relationships are already so intriguing. I’m here for this.

  5. I really enjoyed this first episode. I know a lot of folks are, understandably, comparing this to the other shows in the Arrow/Berlanti-verse, but I couldn’t help but compare it to Marvel’s Luke Cage which I also loved.

    It’s still TBD if Black Lightening can match what Luke Cage has done from an action standpoint but I think it has done a better job, early on, of establishing the heart of the show. I understand the why of BL better after one episode than I did after a handful of LC.

    • I think the Luke Cage comparison is well warranted. I’m also a massive LC fan, I even suffered through the worst parts of The Defenders (*cough cough* Iron Luke) just to enjoy him and Jessica Jones.

      I think that one of the problems with Luke is that the character is designed to be closed off and secretive- I understand why, in narrative, but you’re absolutely right that makes him hard to connect to from the audience.

      I read another article comparing the two (remind me to send it to you! If I can find it), that argues that one of the benefits of Black Lightning is that by having three protagonists, including two young women, gives the show more ample opportunity to show a diversity of blackness compared to LC. So that’s something else to consider as well.

    • I also thought a lot of Luke Cage while watching the premiere, and the least cynical parts of my brain kept posing the question of whether BL could be even better than LC.

      I really enjoyed most of LC, but didn’t really connect with Luke as much as Misty/Claire/Mariah, and think it was one part his hokey dialogue and one part my discomfort as a viewer with Luke’s take on respectability politics. Sometimes he felt too scrubbed, like the writing team wanted him to be the best/most respectable type of black guy, esp when playing opposite Diamondback and even Cottonmouth. It was just a bit sanctimonious and felt disconnected from blackness as I see and know it in men in my life.

      I’m hoping BL lets Cress Williams be as charming and sort of magnetic as he’s always been (IMO) but carves out a whole lot of space for the women to play roles that don’t always center on him or other men, which is also m hope for LC, esp concerning Mariah (who should be a big boss by now).

      I know it’s the CW, but my hopes are really high for this one.

      • I think you really hit the nail on the head here, Mina. On A LOT of levels.

        But also, I wanted to echo that not ending the first season of LC with Mariah being the Big Bad was one of the worst storytelling decisions I’ve ever seen. She was PERFECT for like two glorious episodes, why they had her play second fiddle to another dude (who wasn’t even Mahershala Ali) was out of line.

        • RIGHT? Why shelve Cottonmouth AND Mariah, two uniquely compelling villains from one messed up family after like 6-8 eps, and roll out Diamondback to be a general menace type? Cottonmouth was clearly not as up to the task as Mariah, but I wanted more time to draw that conclusion for sure, if only because Mahershala Ali is so stupid talented and intriguing in that role. I could’ve watched him show and suffer for both the hubris and longing to fulfill a predetermined role fora good long time, esp since he and Mariah being involved usually meant more to do for Misty knight.

          They had like 2.5 seasons worth of material, maybe 3 if handled right, and with gradually escalating stakes instead of going from mid-level kingpin to slightly more composed/super brilliant but also super unhinged queenpin to random surprise half-brother with a super suit who throws out the “n word” willy nilly for funsies and makes “yo mama” comments and is legitimately deranged for some hard to pin reason.

          I’m still mad they didn’t let Alfre Woodard go off for at least 8 episodes showing a journey from “Im too proper and educated to run the drug and gun mules” to “I’m too ambitious and clear headed to let these fools keep me from my destiny any longer”, but whatever, I guess seeing Luke beat up his mean old brother is fine, too.

          I really did enjoy several elements of Luke Cage, but nothing irks me like wasting talented and interesting ladies in favor of bland dude problems.

        • Really though…who on this writing staff was like “Hmm…Mariah should beat a man to death in one ep, then sacrifice her status to cower in front of a new, strange man a couple eps later!”

          They gotta dream bigger.

  6. I was on the fence about watching this series, being that I’m more of a Marvel fanboi, but reading your review has got me HYPE to glue my eyes to this series as soon as my shift of being a customer service rep is over.

  7. I had great hopes for the show for a long time and I loved it as much I had hoped. I’m also glad it seems so many other people loved it and the ratings are great for CW standards. I have great faith in the Akils. I would feel even safer if I knew of any lgbt writers were on their staff (at this point I still fear Anissa’s starter girlfriend might get killed since she the actress mentioned only being around for a few episodes; even if we know that Anissa is not gonna be alone for long, I’d still rather not see that).

  8. I opened this recap, then paused to open the CW’s website and watched the first ep so I could just yell and then read this.

    I am ENAMORED!! with this show! And I love love loved your write up. Very excited to see how this season is, and am very much so looking forward to reading more of your recaps!

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