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.
— Black Lightning (@blacklightning) January 17, 2018
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 (@blacklightning) January 17, 2018
Black Lightning airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on CW.
Star Trek Beyond is a good movie. Some might even say it’s a great movie. It’s certainly a sad movie, since it’s poor Anton Yelchin’s last film, not to mention that the film’s original intent was to honor the legacy of the late Leonard Nimoy. But for everything that’s great about it (“Night on the Yorktown”: GET INTO IT, soundtrack lovers), there’s one part that is apt to tickle the brain in an unpleasant way, and you won’t realize it until after you’ve left the movie. You probably won’t even realize what it is that bothered you about certain scenes until weeks or months later.
Or until you read this post.
The thing that probably bothered you was the fact that Idris Elba wasn’t allowed to be Idris Elba. Another thing that probably bothered you was how Elba’s character was indicative of the overall treatment of black men in the Star Trek reboot films. All of this reflects how black men are treated in entertainment and society overall.
Want to figure out how all of this relates to each other? Let’s get into it.
Before you get any further, you should know that there are spoilers in this post, so beware.
Idris Elba vs. Krall
When we see a film starring Idris Elba, we’re typically going to see Idris Elba, not Idris Elba as some monster-alien. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Elba being an actor under prosthetics, but it’s really interesting that out of all of the characters and out of all of the non-existent black men we haven’t seen up until now, the one black guy we do see is covered up so we can’t see his moneymaker—his face. This isn’t even discussing the fact that even without the social commentary, the prosthetics just look cheesy. Sorry about it, but Krall, the villain Elba plays, looks like a Power Rangers character. So, so sorry, but it’s just not a breathable looking, moldable mask. Elba couldn’t act through it, so it just made the fact that he was wearing a full-face prosthetic even more apparent and unbearable.
As if the film knew that we as the audience would get tired of hearing Elba put all his acting in his voice to counteract the impossibility of acting through the mask, the film provided us and Elba a reprieve by allowing him to actually act to the camera as the human version of Krall, Balthazar Edison, a former United Earth Military Assault commander. After the U.E.M.A. was dissolved, Edison was grandfathered into the Starfleet program as a starship captain. We see him acting jovially with his crew in an old recording found on his old ship, the U.S.S. Franklin. But that’s the thing; it’s in a old recording. You never see Elba as a human in real time. You just see this in flashback. That’s a problem because it’s yet another way to remove Elba from the movie and Krall/Edison from his own humanity (and possible chance at redemption).
So what does this have to do with the treatment of black men in Star Trek? Well, looking solely at the reboot series, we have yet to see a prominent black male character. The only black speaking male character you have seen throughout this reboot series is doggone Tyler Perry, and that’s because he paid his way in. In Star Trek Beyond, we have one black redshirt and another black guy (another redshirt, but not security) walk onto the bridge. That’s it. In a universe as vast as the Star Trek one, the potential of the series to tell the story of inclusion and humanity in harmony is always limited by the storyteller(s)’ own biases, internal limitations or, maybe in some cases, fears. Even though the film thought it pertinent to show Sulu in a relationship, despite cutting out the actual scene of him kissing his husband, the series as a whole still hasn’t shown a black man in full capacity of himself.
Krall’s death vs. Khan’s redemption
How come Krall has to die, but Khan gets to live? In Star Trek Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan (aka John Harrison aka a whitewashed character) gets to go back into cyro sleep, even though he’s literally a weapon. Meanwhile, Krall, who is actually a sympathetic character (As you’ll read later), accidentally kills himself with his own space-age weapon after a series of fights in which Kirk is trying to stop him, if not kill him. Why, though? Why is Khan still alive in this world when Krall is the one who should be shown some sort of olive branch?
Yes, Krall was trying to kill everyone in Yorktown and potentially, everyone in the Federation. But so was Khan. To be honest, the whole “big bad trying to kill everyone” tactic is becoming reductive and, once again, limited thinking as to what the scope of Star Trek can actually encompass. But if a big bad has to die each film, then let that be consistent. Don’t give one villain a reprieve from death and kill Elba and Eric Bana’s villains in the other two movies.
What’s the most annoying part of Krall’s demise is that there was probably somewhere still inside Krall who still wanted to return to the man he was. His main problem was that the Federation left him and his crew out to die. He did what he had to do to survive, and that included him reducing himself down to the lowest of levels to live. Krall as Edison also had another issue that Kirk primarily dealt with; the existentialism of life. Both Kirk and Krall wondered what more there was to their lives, and why they were even doing what they were doing. Both of them had dealt with existentialism even before they sat in the captain’s chair; Kirk was aimless for much of his life before Starfleet, and Edison was a commander in the world’s space army, a post he enjoyed, and then his definition of himself was taken away when Starfleet came. One area Simon Pegg and Doug Jung could have expounded on this shared issue is have Kirk actually try to talk him down during their fight. Kirk could have tried some version of “I’ve felt lost, too” to appeal to Krall’s humanity (which is still there, since you see him begin to change back into a brown humanoid-type being). Instead, Kirk fails to use this knowledge and is instead focused primarily on stopping Krall by any means necessary.
Krall as the Black Lesson Giver
Ultimately, Krall is just another form of the black form used as a lesson giver for a white lead. Krall’s own humanity is never discussed; his humanity is treated in past tense even though you learn his motivations and reasoning behind his anger. Krall’s purpose isn’t to fulfill his own destiny; it’s to help Kirk complete his. Through Krall’s downfall, Kirk comes to the conclusion that his place is with the Enterprise after all. However, there was possibly another way Kirk could have learned this without Krall basically sacrificing himself for Kirk’s story to continue.
Krall’s entire story is something that could have been given 10 times more weight than it was. Krall being a black man who has had his sense of purpose stolen, his mental health denied (because Edison’s existentialism has given way to extreme depression), and his humanity stripped, forcing him to survive by any means necessary, only to be then denied a second chance to course-correct his life, is the black American man’s story in a nutshell. Krall wasn’t just “a monster.” He was a man who had everything taken from him and then was expected to be all right with it. He faced unimaginable things for over 100 years; what did anyone expect for him to become, a saint? After all of your crew dies and you can’t help them, you would also believe Starfleet doesn’t care about you. Starfleet brushing over their role in Krall’s creation sounds just like how America as a whole fails to understand how the country’s original sin still affects black America today. To appropriate a popular phrase, Krall’s life mattered.
What did you think of Star Trek Beyond? I invite you to give me your views on Krall and the film as a whole.
One of the coolest events is happening in Los Angeles tomorrow (Sat. Aug. 29) called the Blackout Music & Film Festival. The event, which will take place primarily at the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. Live, will feature tons of entertainment, but also a socially conscious message of awareness and activism.
James Baldwin is quoted as saying, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” If that’s true for black people, I’d say the same has to be true for Native Americans, particularly since they were the first non-white people of America to be brutalized. It’s for this reason that I’ve always thought Native and black people should work together to help end each other’s strife, and it’s also this reason that I was confused as to why people were getting on rapper-turned investigative journalist/activist Mykki Blanco’s case.
I had a lot of posts here, but I had to whittle it down to five. Here we go!