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“Black Lightning” masterfully puts black pain–and black power– in the spotlight

I remember when people were up in arms about the fact that Black Lightning wasn’t going to be a part of the Berlanti-verse alongside The Flash and Arrow. Even though I don’t watch either of those shows, the news did sound like CW was making a negative “Whites Only” distinction between the Berlanti-verse and Black Lightning. However, after watching the Black Lightning premiere, I’m actually quite glad that Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning (Cress Williams) has his own universe to play in. With the salient themes the show wants to get across, it needs a specific, concentrated point of view, and getting bogged down in the more comic booky setup established by The Flash and Arrow would, in my opinion, get in the way.

The show, brought to us by Maria Brock-Akil and Salim Akil, has a pointed message: too often, black pain is ignored or stuffed down, either to keep the peace or just so to stay alive. But at some point, enough is enough, and black pain turns into black power. In this case, that power is taken from subtext to text, with Jefferson revisiting his ability to generate and control lightning.

Jefferson’s pain isn’t just hinted at; it’s shown to us in stark moments, like the opening sequence which shows Jefferson as a well-regarded principal in his town and a few minutes later, he’s the victim of a racist police pullover. The pain is both external and internal, when his oldest daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) argues with him about his style of protesting–which could be critiqued as playing to respectability politics–versus her style of protesting, which is much more in line with today’s Black Lives Matter movement and other grassroots movements.

This particular argument is something I feel will come up in the show over and over again, as it’s an argument that is happening in the real world all the time.  It’s a discussion I often argue with myself over–technically I’m a “millennial,” but I’m of the older set; I’m much closer to Generation X than I am millennials, and on top of that, I’m someone who has always felt older than her age. I understand why Jefferson is more concerned with what looks like “keeping the peace” and focusing more on education and, to be blunt, status. For Jefferson, the way out of the existential predicament African Americans are in is through higher learning, and for many of us, including me, that’s what we were taught. I feel like I’m of the last generation when The United Negro College Fund was prominently on TV, drilling the catchphrase “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” in our heads. We were literally taught that the only path forward for us, the only path towards being treated with humanity and dignity, was through attending college, attaining that quintessential “good job with a 401K,” and getting that house in the suburbs.

However, there’s the other side of me that knows that protests are the only way we’ve been able to attain even that level of privileged thinking. The blood sacrificed for us to even establish a college fund means something, and to honor that, we have to continue putting ourselves on the front lines in whatever way we can. We have to fight for ourselves and our humanity, otherwise, the rights we have will be taken away from us. The Black Lives Matter movement and other movements like it are essential to the ongoing conversation our nation has had about race, privilege, power, and humanity.

But, as Jefferson pointedly said to Anissa, many young activists forget that the same older people they deride for playing “respectability politics” were fighting the good fight longer than they’ve been alive. The disconnect between the generations sometimes results in unnecessary animosity, with both sides not wanting to come together in the middle and recognize the similarities. The Black Lives Matter Movement, Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, and others are just the ideological grandchildren of SNCC, CORE, the NAACP, the Black Panther Party, and others. Recognizing the history shared and coming together to develop solutions for going forward should be part of today’s activist movement instead of the isolation and chiding I’ve seen among some younger activists and some of the older generation.

It’s this combustible combination of a society gone rampant with fear and police brutality coupled with activism in the social media age that have put Jefferson between a rock and a hard place. At his core, he is an activist. A vigilante, even–Black Lightning is the scourge of the police, but beloved by many in his city. But as a father and a man who wants to reconcile with his wife Lynn (Christine Adams) after his do-gooding split them apart, Jefferson just wants to be able to work, come home, and have his family safe in America. He’s a hero who doesn’t want to be a hero, but is often called to be one. I think that’s one of the more interesting things about Jefferson as a character. It’s similar to how Marvel’s Luke Cage didn’t want to be a hero, but was called to be because the community needed him.

This calling is often the hallmark of black superheroes in both Marvel and DC Comics. Whereas some white or white-passing superheroes like Superman can think of heroism as a luxury, black superheroes arise because no one else will help them. A superhero has to be borne out of necessity. There was an episode of Superman: The Animated Series that shows the origins of Steel; in many ways, his story is the same; Superman wasn’t holding things down in Steel’s neck of the woods, and he had to rise up and take care of the crime in his community. What’s odd is that I don’t remember Superman ever getting called out on his oversight.

Overall, I feel Black Lightning is setting up to be, like Luke Cage was when it premiered in 2016, the superhero we need for these complicated and excruciating times. Black Lighting, like its Marvel counterpart, shows how these “feats of daring-do” can speak to our current fears and hopes. These characters might be fictional, but the carry a very real weight. They can also, when put in the right hands, carry messages to help us learn and grow and, hopefully, become better, more compassionate human beings towards each other.

A key moment of this is when we see how Anissa is affected by almost every black male villain in this episode calling her a bitch or pulling a gun out on her. Black men take a lot of abuse, no doubt, but black women take a very different and very specific kind of abuse, one that’s leveled by men outside and within the race. This type of abuse leveled against black women by black men can be intellectualized and understood–as shown on the last season of Underground, abuse within the black family can be traced back to slavery, when some black men would take out their aggression for their white slavemasters onto their black wives, who had no recourse for help or understanding outside of their home or in the nation at large. It’s shown in The Color Purple, in which Whoopi Goldberg’s character Celie is a constant victim and Oprah Winfrey’s character Sofia talks about the sexual and physical abuse she’s faced from every man in her life, including her own husband. But that doesn’t make the lasting effects of it in today’s society any less painful. After being jerked around, called ou of her name, kidnapped, almost forced into prostitution, and nearly killed, Anissa has had enough. Now, like her father, her own powers bubble up from black pain and become transmuted into strength.

Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on CW. 

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4 Reasons Why black-ish’s Tackling of Police Brutality Was Amazing

black-ish killed the game Wednesday night! The show opened eyes, ears, hearts, and minds with its bottle episode “Hope,” in which the Johnsons sat and watched yet another case involving the death of an unarmed black man. There were several unexpected moments, including the introduction of the good-looking prosecutor and the continued acting career of Don Lemon.  But there were other reasons why the episode was a standout, and why it’ll go down in the history books as one of the most important episodes of the show’s short run.

1. black-ish tackled police brutality in an even-handed way

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What was important for black-ish to do was to give all viewpoints on the police brutality issue. Not all black people, and frankly, not all people in general, hold the same views about police brutality, and the characters on black-ish give each viewpoint merit. Dre, Ruby and Pops believe that all police are bad (despite Dre’s constantly nagging the police whenever he heard a noise outside his house) and that the system is rigged against them. Rainbow believed that there was some injustice, but the system still worked on the whole. Junior took to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book to educate himself on the world and, like a lot of young adults, feels compelled to go protest. Zoey seems like she’s constantly zoned out on her phone, but she actually is affected, probably more affected than anyone else; she, like a lot of young people, feel lost. Jack and Diane simply want to know what’s going on and why.

What’s fascinating to me is that there wasn’t any “right” or “wrong” way to feel. What happened was that everyone was expressing their viewpoints because of their personal worldviews and upbringings. Dre grew up in a neighborhood that was rampant with police for good and bad reasons, and that upbringing shaped his worldview of the police. Rainbow grew up in a commune, and her level of trust is reflective of that. Ruby and Pops come from an era that’s different even from Dre’s upbringing. The kids have grown up in a kinder world than the one Dre grew up in, and because of Dre and Rainbow’s economic and social status, they have been shielded from a lot. Their lack of experience played out with the kids feeling a sense of hopelessness and an urge to put their feet to the pavement and march. Everyone’s opinions were equally acknowledged and challenged, and everyone came out with the consensus to work together to deal with the situation at hand.

2. The episode didn’t hold back on the humor.

This wasn’t an ordinary “Special Episode” of a show, even though it was a very special episode. Black-ish did what it always does, which is discuss real world issues, but it also didn’t forget to bring the jokes. I laughed the hardest when Junior didn’t agree with Dre on some of his police brutality stats, and Dre mutters how he wants to see Junior in the back of a cop car for disagreeing with him. When you type it out, it sounds horrific, but when you hear Anthony Anderson say the words in the same manner we’ve said stuff when someone decides to eviscerate our points, it’s hilarious.

Also hilarious: The show touched on how everyone went through a Malcolm X phase during the late ’80s and early ’90s, including Dre. Every episode of A Different World looked like Dre’s “I’m blackety black” look. Compare:

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Let’s not forget Pops being a Bobcat, in his former life, not a Black Panther. “Still part of the radical cat family!”

3. Anthony Anderson gives the performance of his career, black-ish or otherwise.

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To be fair, black-ish has had some amazing moments, moments that go under the radar because it’s usually encased in Dre’s voiceover. But black-ish is always laying down the law when it comes to how the other half lived (and is still living). The discussion about swimming and the quick jab at colorism during the Season 1 finale are just two that stick out in my mind. Anderson’s moment in Wednesday’s black-ish episode, though, was one that I know will reverberate in people’s consciousness for a long time.

His statement about his pride and fear for Barack Obama as the first black U.S. President is something I’m sure a lot of people can identify with. I identified with it immediately, since my family and I were also afraid Obama would get assassinated when he got out of the car dubbed “the Beast.” Those minutes of him and Michelle walking down the street, waving happily to people, were some of the most tense moments of my life. Anderson’s tension came through in that scene, as well as his sadness and profound anger at how America consistently tries to keep black Americans back. (Just remember the beginning scene of the second act when Dre’s voice over and file footage showcase the deaths of civil rights heroes and those who wanted to make a difference, and then think back to Dre’s tear-filled eyes as he recounted what should have been one of the happiest days of his life.)

Kudos to you, Anderson; you’ve earned yourself another Image Award. Emmys: you better give Anderson a nom, if not an award next year.

4. blackish shows that the family that protests together, stays together

BLACK-ISH - "Hope" - When the kids ask some tough questions in the midst of a highly publicized court case involving alleged police brutality and an African-American teenager, Dre and Bow are conflicted on how best to field them. Dre, along with Pops and Ruby, feel the kids need to know what kind of world they're living in, while Bow would like to give them a more hopeful view about life. When the verdict is announced, the family handles the news in different ways while watching the community react, on "black-ish," WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24 (9:31-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Patrick Wymore) MILES BROWN, JENIFER LEWIS, MARSAI MARTIN
BLACK-ISH – “Hope” – When the kids ask some tough questions in the midst of a highly publicized court case involving alleged police brutality and an African-American teenager, Dre and Bow are conflicted on how best to field them. Dre, along with Pops and Ruby, feel the kids need to know what kind of world they’re living in, while Bow would like to give them a more hopeful view about life. When the verdict is announced, the family handles the news in different ways while watching the community react, on “black-ish,” WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24 (9:31-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Patrick Wymore)
MILES BROWN, JENIFER LEWIS, MARSAI MARTIN

What I loved a lot about the episode is that, in an effort to show their solidarity and to make their displeasure known, they decide to join the protest as a family unit. That message is so heartening to me, because it shows that no matter how powerless you feel (like how Zoey felt), you can still make a difference in your own way. By voicing your concerns, marching, protesting (by traditional or non-traditional means), you are changing society for the better. It also shows that if each person or each family decided to make a difference, no matter how small, imagine how much (and how quickly) society would change.

What did you think of this very important black-ish episode? Give your opinions in the comments section below!