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‘Black Lightning’ strikes with the perfect mix of super-heroics and social responsibility

“Black Lightning,” starring Cress Williams in the title role, debuts Jan. 16 on the CW. (CW)
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For those looking for a black superhero to crash the network television party, there was always only one hope: Black Lightning.

There exists a small Mount Rushmore of black comic book superheroes to begin with, and most have already begun their path in the world of entertainment. There’s Marvel’s Black Panther, who will make his cinematic debut (with Chadwick Boseman in the lead role) in February for a celebration so anticipated it could add an extra couple of days to Black History Month. Cyborg, perhaps DC Comics’ most popular black superhero, due in no small part to the success of Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans Go!” series, received the big-budget movie treatment with Ray Fisher’s performance in “Justice League.” Luke Cage (starring Mike Colter) has become a successful part of Marvel’s gritty Netflix superhero slate. DC’s John Stewart/Green Lantern is up there, but his live-action debut is tied up into the will they/won’t they “Green Lantern” movie reboot.

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And yes, I realize Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Don Cheadle’s War Machine are both flying around the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that “Arrow’s” Diggle/Spartan (David Ramsey) and “Supergirl’s” Martian Manhunter (David Harewood) are on the CW, but those characters aren’t franchise starters.

If the CW was going to take their success in comic-book adaptation and put a black superhero at the forefront, Black Lightning was the only guy left. That’s not a bad thing, however.

“Black Lightning” debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. on the CW. Don’t be blinded by the intense dark and baby blues of actor Cress Williams’s electrically charged superhero suit. Take a deeper look and you’ll see a show that doesn’t get lost in the fantasy of superhero television and takes the responsibility of portraying being black in America seriously.

A huge part of any future success of “Black Lightning” will depend on the gaze of that very same Black America, who will be watching this show while tweeting away hashtags like #blacklightningsolit in the hopes that the show passes the black authenticity test (it does).

Williams’s Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce is a retired hero when we meet him. He’s put the cool suit and mask away and has convinced himself that the best way to help his city of Freeland isn’t lightning blasts but education, to give kids a fair shot. He’s the principal of a predominately black school who’s trying to serve as the barrier between his students and the gang-controlled city waiting for them once they leave.

The premiere episode’s most intense moment is the hero’s rebirth: Pierce falls victim to a police profiling incident that helps him realize that no matter how many children he’s helped or how wonderful a father he is to his daughters (who are played magnificently be actresses Nafessa Williams and China Anne McClain), there will always be those who are there to remind him of his place and all that comes with being a black man in America.

Success, a nice suit and charisma shield no black man from ignorance. That’s a fact “Black Lightning” takes head on in a way that no other CW show does, despite their talented black actors.

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“Black Lightning’s” black edge comes from successful husband-and-wife producer duo Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil (“The Game,” “Being Mary Jane,” “Girlfriends”), who can give the black audience assurances that the black experience — from fatherhood to racism to profiling to love and hope — won’t be ignored on a network superhero television series.

But for all the depth, there’s still plenty of super. This is a comic book show after all.

As the show begins, Williams’s hero is trying to leave the mask behind because of what it took away from him: the love of his life. He’s co-raising two daughters alone after his wife, Lynn Pierce (Christine Adams), leaves him because he wouldn’t let Black Lightning go. His attempts at reconciliation are stalled when he realizes Black Lightning must return.

That return puts him on an eventual path to taking on an old foe, Tobias Whale, played with a cold chill in his voice by actor/rapper Marvin Jones III. So often in these CW superhero shows, the villain can make or break a season. If that’s the case here, “Black Lightning” has no worries, so long as Tobias Whale keeps breathing. But given the rage and animosity he and Black Lightning share for each other, that’s no guarantee.

There’s plenty of vigilante justice and action mixed in with a very straightforward social message: Black Lightning does indeed matter.

Read more:

‘Luke Cage’ is the blackest thing Marvel has ever done

New ‘Black Panther’ trailer gives us a closer look at Wakanda — and the villain’s ambitions

‘Black Lightning’ plays well to its strengths, rather than playing like a token effort