The first five minutes of the pilot for Black Lightning are perfection. It immediately establishes what the series is truly about and where the characters stand on these issues. The show may be named for the hero Cress Williams plays. Yet, a case can be made that it’s not really his show, but rather his daughter’s. Nafessa Williams plays Anissa Pierce, who is the first black lesbian superhero on any TV show, Thunder. If there is a Hero’s Journey at play in this series, it belongs to her.
The story begins with her being arrested for protesting in the city of Freeland, which is to Atlanta as Gotham City is to New York. The conversation between her and her father is a great character piece. Her dad, Jefferson, is all about working within the confines of the system and the law. Anissa, on the other hand, is all about direct action and sacrificing your own comfort for the needs of others. When Jefferson returns to his Black Lightning identity, it’s for selfish (of a sort) reasons. Anissa, on the other hand, dons her first costume because once she discovered her powers, she knew she had to use them to help people.
Thunder, her superhero name, is the first black lesbian super-powered individual to be a regular on a TV show. Not only that, she is the “purest” hero on the show. Her father is in it for revenge. Her sister, Jennifer A.K.A. Lightning played by China Anne McClain is duped into become a costumed hero by a villain. Anissa just can’t stop helping people. So much so that she has two costumed identities. Thunder is a symbol of hope, a reflection of her father. Blackbird, however, crosses lines Black Lightning never would.
Why the First Black Lesbian Superhero on a TV Show Is an Important Thing
Image via CW
We live in the interesting times from the old curse, which is why superhero stories for kids are more important than ever. Part of the allure of these costumed figures is that anyone can see themselves in the suit, whether it’s a full-face mask like Spider-Man or no mask at all like Superman. Yet, there is something special about a character who looks (and loves) like you do. It’s not impossible for kids to see themselves in heroes that don’t look or even act like they do. But, it’s always easier to make that connection when they reflect their audiences.
You can’t tell me representation doesn’t matter. You can’t tell me media including art doesn’t control the narrative of how we look at others and ourselves #BlackLivesMatter
Cc: my friend @BRIANMBENDIS Miles Morales influence ✊🏾💛 pic.twitter.com/J6dEYtbCNo
— Azie Tesfai (@AzieTesfai) June 14, 2020
As the first black lesbian superhero on a tv show, Anissa Pierce provides some much needed diversity to the live-action pantheon of costumed crimefighters. Girls, especially those of color, can see themselves in her. Queer kids can see themselves in her. She is strong, smart, determined, and compassionate. She’s basically the Captain America of Black Lightning. She’s not a “girl scout” in the way that Cap is often described as a “boy scout.” But like scrawny Steve Rogers, she is uniquely aware of what it’s like to live without power. That’s why she’ll never waste her abilities or, even, play it safe when she should.
The other thing that makes Anissa such a great hero, is her lack of fear. Black Lightning is full of fear, weighing the consequences of his actions on himself and his family. Yet, he’s also pulled by a sense of duty and a desire for justice. Lightning is full of fear and anger. (It’s an allegory to the teenage experience, though.) She can’t control her immense power. When she finally can, she’s manipulated into being something she doesn’t want to be. Anissa? She’s not perfect, but she’s just good.
Black Lightning Might Just Be the Best Superhero Series on the CW
Image via CW
When Black Lightning first debuted, series creator Salim Akil made the arguably questionable decision to be entirely separate from the rest of the Arrowverse. Partly this was practical, since Black Lightning films in Atlanta, and the rest of the CW shows film in Vancouver. This distance would make those casual crossovers and appearances by different shows’ casts very difficult. However, Akil also wanted to have his own space to develop the story and allow the characters to grow on their own. Still, after the Crisis On Infinite Earths event, Black Lightning takes place on the same Earth as the rest of Arrowverse.
The downside of this early separation, however, was that it almost discouraged CW cape show fans from investing in the Black Lightning-verse. Yet, this is a huge oversight on the part of fans. This show features consistently great writing, acting, and action. The series is able to better tackle the social issues that comic book stories often adapt than other series. The interplay of street crime, modern policing strategy, government intervention, and the fine line between justice and vengeance make Black Lightning the best show you’re probably not watching.
Only recently did I finish the third season of the show, and its themes are as relevant as ever. The town of Freeland is occupied by a secretive government military force, and Jefferson must fully face his internal conflict. Always wanting to work through the system and in the confines of the law, he sees is family and city decimated by the villains. (Also, Wayne Brady turns up as one of the greatest bad guys since Killmonger.)
So, that Black Lightning has the first black lesbian superhero in a TV show is just one of the many remarkable achievements of this series.
Black Lightning will return for a fourth season in 2021.
Featured image via CW
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.