Have you heard the good news? Our very own Jennifer Pierce is a superhero!
A sulky, depressed, moody teenage superhero.
Anissa finds her little sister in her super pink bedroom, curled in a ball in bed with the curtains drawn in the middle of the day. Jennifer’s worried that she’s going crazy. She intellectually knows that a human cannot burn a cellphone like it’s a s’mores marshmallow, but it felt so real. She feels confused and alone.
I’d like to think Anissa knows something about those emotions, both as a former gay teenager and also from her own hero “coming out” earlier this year. There’s nothing worse than thinking you are the only one. That no one else will ever understand. So, Anissa does the only thing she thinks she can. She proves to her baby sister that she is not alone in this world.
She apologizes to Jennifer, she should have told her the truth earlier. She should have handled her vulnerability better. Then she breathes in deep and lifts Jennifer’s bed up from the ground — with Jennifer still in it! She tells her sister the truth: Anissa is Thunder, and their father is Black Lightning.
Yeaaaaaah, Jennifer doesn’t handle that well. She barrels down the stairs screaming “DAAAAAAD!”
Last week in the comments section, some of y’all predicted that Jennifer would be less than excited about her powers, and you were 100% correct. She spends most of this episode coming to terms with the ways her life is about to fundamentally change; and her processing isn’t pretty. I think it’s great that Black Lightning not only took the time to previously establish each Pierce sister as their own person, but also follow through that those personalities would react to finding out that their superhero truth very differently. Anissa has always wanted to save the world, she sees becoming Thunder as a divine calling. The weight of that same responsibility is crushing Jennifer.
Anissa, cuddled in sweats the next day, tries again to connect with Jennifer. She tries to comfort her, telling her that she wanted Jennifer to find out about her new abilities in the in the gentlest way possible. After all, Jennifer found out she came from a family of superheroes while safe in bed. Anissa found out by being barbecued alive by Jefferson.
Anissa tells her sister, she’s freaked out all the time. She draws strength from their community; she wants to be there to protect women, protect people of color, anyone who society leaves vulnerable. She doesn’t exactly frame it this way, but let’s be real — Anissa is a black feminist lesbian, so we all know she’s read her requisite Audre Lorde. And the Good Lorde teaches us, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I’m afraid.”
Jennifer scoffs — she didn’t give Anissa the nickname “Harriet Tubman” for nothing. Service to community is well and good, but the one time Jennifer tried marching, her boyfriend’s spine got severed in two by a bullet.
Anissa realizes that that Jennifer has been googling “Black Lightning” and “Thunder” on her MacBook. In the first video, some idiot man is talking ‘bout, “Thunder? She could save me ANYTIME! I mean, Dat Ass Tho, Right!?!?!?” And before you can ask, yes there’s an autotune remix! Anissa rolls her eyes. She’s right, it’s not funny. Women shouldn’t be objectified. (But also, Anissa, you’re fine. I say that respectfully! But, I have eyeballs. I’m only human).
Jennifer tells Anissa, in this quiet, proud, awestruck voice that only gets saved for little sisters who are talking to their big sisters and personal heroes, that Thunder already has more fans than Black Lightning online. One fan group, which makes NO mention of Anissa’s ass, applauds her for “challenging the patriarchy’s narrative about female heroes.” Ummm, is that fan group us? You guys, I think it us! That’s our girl!
In the end it’s Lynn who really breaks through with Jennifer. First, she tries talking to Jennifer alone in her pink bedroom. She tells her that she knows exactly how Jennifer feels. Lynn’s the closest ally Jennifer has right now. She’s a reluctant hero, too. She never wanted this life for her family. Jennifer shuts it down, asking her mother if she’s secretly Vixen or Supergirl (nice CW superheroes shout out!). Before leaving Jennifer alone with her thoughts, Lynn tells her that she’s none of those things, but she is her mom. And she loves her. Hopefully that would be enough.
A few days pass, and Lynn is tired with Jennifer’s moping behavior, so switches to a more direct “tough love” approach. Jennifer tries slamming her way out of the kitchen, but Lynn reaches into her bag of tricks and pulls out the most iconic of Black Mom Proverbs, “I don’t know what goes on in your friends’ families, but in THIS family young ladies who roll their eyes or give their parents the silent treatment are young ladies who can start paying their own bills.”
For those of you who didn’t grow up with the black mama code cheatsheet, let me break it down for you: “Try that mess one more time, and it’s going to be your last breath.”
Jennifer can’t outrun her feelings any longer, it’s time for truth.
Sitting at the kitchen counter, she lets her emotions bare. She’s angry at Lynn and Jefferson. Not only because they kept the truth about Black Lightning’s powers from her, but because they didn’t properly warn her that this could happen to her one day. She was blindsided.
She breaks down in tears, eyes glistening and voice wavering. She’s not Anissa. She just wants to go to prom, goof off and get high with Keisha, go to college, and one day have kids of her own. Can she even have kids now? Who will love her? She’s a freak. She just wants to be normal.
Lynn holds her daughter tight, tenderly kissing the top her head and telling her it’s going to be ok. China McCain once again proves to be such a talent at still a young age. She found every beat of pain in Jennifer’s monologue. It’s such a real, honest, human desire — to not stand out. My poor sweet baby, none of us normal. You can’t dim your own bright light.
While Jennifer is at home grappling with these new changes in her life, Anissa and Jefferson are back at it with their caped crusader routine! They’re still working on retracing Grandaddy Pierce’s research trail, and they are getting closer and closer to tracking down Head-ASA-Racist-In-Charge Martin Proctor. The specific details of their search are less important than this: at one point in the episode Jefferson and Anissa wear matching Barack and Michelle Obama Halloween masks to scare the living daylights out of some old white man lawyer.
Gambi, still wrecked with guilt, is conducting a parallel investigation to The Pierces — he is trying to track down who’s going to kill Black Lightning. While in his search, Gambi realizes that the super powered young black kids he was spying on 30 years ago for the ASA are now dead. He didn’t recognize it at the time, but he was helping to track these young people down so that they could be assassinated by the government in the middle of a coverup.
DUH! You think!?!? Listen, I try to keep an open mind about Gambi, but this whole “I didn’t realize that white supremacy in secret government agencies was actually dangerous” routine is so hard for me. At least own up to it! If there’s one thing we should know by now as a country, it’s that white people defending white supremacy by hiding behind blind ignorance only leaves people of color more vulnerable. Roll up your sleeves and get to work, or get out of the way.
Gambi calls Anissa to the shop. He tells her what we already know, that the ASA is actively hunting Black Lightning. He gives her a new, upgraded Thunder suit and tells her to be safe.
OK. This was the moment when my heart nearly stopped.
The backbeat picks up, and we hear Thunder’s official theme song for the first time. The overhead music promises us that Black Girl Magic can do wonders, taking time to name check Kenneka Jenkins, Erica Garner, and Sandra Bland, as we are treated to a slow cut montage of Anissa suiting up in her new look.
I want to tell you more about what Anissa is wearing — but my brain short circuited. It’s not just that Nafessa Williams is a beautiful woman, though she obviously is, or that, ahem, the costume fits her perfectly, which it did. It’s the strut she takes. It’s the fact I still remember my first X-Men cartoon in second grade. I remember how powerful I felt watching Storm, how immaculately I kept her trading card. For most of my nerd life, it’s just been me and Storm, two black girls fighting the cosmos. Just this year alone, there’s been Valkyrie, then Okoye, Nakia, Shuri, and, in some ways most of all, there has been Anissa Pierce.
Anissa who never gives up the fight for social justice, who loves women like I do, who is purposeful and fierce. Thunder’s theme song isn’t about her. It’s about us. It’s about a community of black women, about our magic. It’s about the lives we have lost. Our pain.
Watching her come around that corner, in her full glory, with hazy smoke rolling around the bounce of her every step, and lyrics about black girl magic blazing above — it’s just everything.
Using the intel they got from the crooked lawyer, Thunder and Black Lightning track down Proctor. Anissa, thanks to the lip reading class she once took so that she could understand the cops who were policing her protests, helps them find the factory where Green Light is being produced. Inspector Henderson sidekicks along, shooting Proctor and arresting one of the lead chemists in charge of making the drug.
From there, it’s a lot of Black Lightning zap zapping and Thunder taking bullets without a sweat, beating down anyone in her path. Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” plays overhead. It’s smooth; and using the song as an audio frame gives the Pierce’s fight sequence the feel of a Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s.
I like the playing with time-crossing genres. The earliest Black Lightning comic was published by DC Comics in 1977. His character is, by all definitions, a product of the Blaxploitation era, along with Marvel’s Luke Cage and Black Panther. Still, we don’t often think of the genre in relationship to the recent black comics renaissance taking over our screens. I’d be interested in exploring those dynamics more, either in aesthetics or callbacks, as we’ve seen here.
The episode ends with Jefferson and Jennifer at home, watching The Princess and The Frog (shout out to the first black Disney Princess! Tiana, I see you girl!). They’re taking comfort in each other before whatever crazy life turn is about to hit them both next.
That’s it for me! Stay tuned for next week on Black Lightning, when I am officially kicking the Grace Choi Search Party into high gear. Until then! Love you!