A high school principal asks his students to reject violence in favour of reason and obeying social and moral codes. But waiting beyond the school gates are gangs with weapons, forcing youngsters into whore houses and using drugs. The police seem powerless to protect the students, because they are underfunded and probably corrupt anyway. The students have little choice but to pick up weapons to defend themselves, some getting themselves killed in the process, and some becoming as bad as the actual gangs. All hell starts to break loose. The principal feels forced to resurrect his secret superhero identity (Black Lightning) in order to keep the streets ‘safe’. He has deep misgivings because he is thereby becoming a hypocritical vigilante. He feels (and very much looks) uncomfortable in his skin – in his lumbering, cheesy superhero disguise. It is an augmented suit too, one that takes a personal toll on him physically and mentally – he starts to become a monster at home, driving away all those he loves and wants to keep close. It is a physical symbol and enactment of his moral and spiritual conflict. It represents the damage done to the psyche and a person’s sense of identity (particularly a black person in an underprivileged area) in today’s (Trumpian) America.
This Netflix tv show (an adaptation of the DC character) will at first seem cliched and naff to viewers. But stick with it and you’ll find that your (genre) expectations are defeated time and again. A mother grieving for her son seeks to confront and shame the gang members who killed her boy. Our innate sense of justice expects her to win out where the cops have failed, or expects Black Lightning to turn up and save her when the gang members turn on her. But the gang members kill her. Outraged, we expect the community to rise up against the gangs, or expect Black Lightning to finally deliver justice. But most people shrug and look to carrying on with their lives. Black Lightning tracks down the killers, only to have a suit malfunction, get a proper kicking and become a laughing stock.
Wow. This is a dark series. It’s not bleak, as it keeps looking for a new way out or solution. Hope and humanity drive it on. One episode, we turn to the Church for answers, and the Church organises a peace march, only to have it shot up by the gangs. In another episode, we hark back to better times, when the local newspaper could name and shame, and hold people to account. But the old editor is now too terrified for his life to print anything too critical of anyone. A different solution is tried in every episode, with Black Lightning muddling through as best as he can, trying to keep faith in himself and justice. Is he a deluded fool? We root for him, but we find it harder and harder (with each set-back) to believe he can ultimately win out. We admire him, sympathise with him, but ultimately fear for him.
This is real life, then. It’s not some escapist superhero caper. The goodies don’t win. The baddies always seem to win. Welcome to the world, boys and girls. And Black Panther… you have no idea.