In 1977, DC Comics unveiled a superhero named Black Lightning, hoping to fill an obvious void with a token character (from writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden) who, inspired somewhat by the characters in blaxploitation cinema, exhibited a lot of street sense on the blighted side of Metropolis, which was actually termed “Suicide Slum.”
Born as a “metahuman” with the ability to manipulate electricity, Jefferson Pierce struggled with how and when to restrict his powers in a way that DC’s white superheroes usually didn’t. His comic-book series was short-lived; Black Lightning is most remembered for turning down membership in the Justice League of America. He had his reasons.
“Black Lightning,” a wholehearted and energetic live-action revival of the character premiering Tuesday night on CW, is refreshingly and intentionally focused on Jefferson’s attempt to balance the conflict among his truest selves — as a black father in his late 40s, a husband, a revered high-school principal and, ultimately, a superhero who comes out of self-imposed exile to fight violence in his community.
Developed by “Being Mary Jane” creator Mara Brock Akil and her husband, Salim Akil (“The Game”), the show is a fine example of what television might look like once we move past the more ceremonial aspects of diversity. This is a black show on a network filled with white superheroes, and it displays no insecurity or self-consciousness about that. It feels strong and confident, at least in the first two episodes — and it is sliding in just ahead of the hotly anticipated theatrical release of “Black Panther,” a movie adaptation of a black Marvel Comics hero.
Today’s “Black Lightning” takes place in Freeland, a fictional city with a skyrocketing crime rate, courtesy of a large gang called the 100. Although his success as the principal of an inner-city high school has brought him local acclaim, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams, in a commanding performance) still suffers occasional indignities, including getting pulled over in his Volvo because police are looking for a robbery suspect who looks nothing like Jefferson — except, of course, for being black.
Jefferson sees reasons every day to reignite his superpowers. His eyes thrum with electric-blue anger when he learns of a fresh outrage committed against his family or one of his students. Or even during the outrages he experiences personally. It’s a powerful fantasy, particularly in the Black Lives Matter era, to call on extreme heroics and vigilantism to deliver a message that will get heard.
Problem is, Jefferson long ago promised his estranged wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), that he would suppress his powers, which she terms “an addiction.” Eager to reconcile with Lynn and repair their marriage, Jefferson nevertheless secretly reaches out to his mentor, Peter (James Remar — the show’s lone white character), who runs a haberdashery shop as a front and urges Black Lightning to once again don the costume kept in storage and clean up the streets.
As comic-book shows go, “Black Lightning” plays more like a family drama crossed with a long-arc crime series. Although one of the producers is Greg Berlanti, who oversees CW’s “Arrowverse” of heroes, “Black Lightning” exists in its own world and eschews a villain-of-the-week format. Instead there is one villain from whom all badness flows, named Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III, also known as the rapper Krondon), a former corrupt politician who now leads the 100.
Top among Jefferson/Black Lightning’s concerns, however, are his daughters. The youngest, Jennifer (China Anne McClain), is a teenager prone to breaking curfew with bad boys; the eldest, Anissa (Nafessa Williams), is a lesbian med-school student who has inherited her father’s idealism. Anissa has also inherited his powers — or some version of them, as she’s discovering — which hints at the possibility of a father-daughter duo.
True, there’s a pious tone to some of this that’s standard to all superhero TV fare, but it’s overcome by the show’s many strengths. There’s also a reassuring feeling here that nobody brought Black Lightning back because of a token need or a niche pursuit. He’s back because he’s a fascinating character all on his own.
Black Lightning (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CW.