Black Lightning: Racism, justice and the cost of your God-given gifts

Published Monday, February 05, 2018  |  

'Black Lightning' is the latest comic-book superhero to hit the small screen, but he's a far cry from what you know. This sharp show engages institutional racism, crippling injustice and the quest for what's right in a bloody, broken world. Its protagonist faces a deeply Christian kind of crisis: the call to embrace God-given gifts for the good of others, even if it means cost and pain for yourself.

Right from the get-go, Black Lightning pulls no punches portraying the weary world of Freeland, a city caught in the tyranny of both bloody gang violence and a corrupt, white and racist police contingent. In this chaos we meet our protagonist Jefferson Pierce (the charming and emotionally engaging Cress Williams), a father, ex-husband and high-school principal who knows what's right, and as a black man, is all too aware of what's wrong.

He was a young superhero once who harnessed the power of electricity as the city's saviour, 'Black Lightning'. But Pierce retired from that fight when he chose family over vigilante justice. Now his call is a civilian one, he's an educator and wise leader who inspires his students to take hold of their lives and make a difference in the world, rather than falling into corruption. He's known affectionately as 'Black Jesus', a pillar of the community who now doesn't target criminals so much as the system that creates them.

CWCress Williams as the luminescent 'Black Lightning'.

But when evil seems to dominate Freeland more than ever, and Pierce's own family come into the firing line, he faces a crisis of identity and ethical action. Is he the inspiring teacher, or the avenging crime-fighter? Is it right to take the law into your own hands, and when the crusade against injustice begins, where does it ever end? These are classical comic-book dilemmas, but they feel fresh in this tale, given weight by the tremendous cast and the sadly familiar but powerful political backdrop.

As with much superhero mythos, it's also a spiritually resonant crisis. Pierce's puzzle over two good but also limited choices is the challenge of wisdom – knowing how to respond to a shifting, complex world when clear-cut rules offer little light.

In a way that seems quite Christian, he finds guidance by reflecting on who he is and the gifts he's been given. He even tells one character explicitly – his powers are surely gifts from God, isn't it a sin to reject them when the needy could be helped? He can be a good man in his day job, but he knows he is more than just a man.

The flipside of the coin is that using these gifts may also mean rejection by and conflict with loved ones who disagree with his choice. Battling violence means incurring wounds and risking death, as well as the sad truth that there will always be evil to combat. Is his alter-ego a noble, necessary mantle, or a dangerous addiction?

That this show embraces serious ethical dilemma alongside heartfelt character-work, sharp political commentary and fresh, impressive action is a striking achievement. As has been noted elsewhere, its also a major step forward for diversity: like Marvel's upcoming Black Panther, its charismatic lead stands out from a crowd of white male protagonists. Such inclusivity in our media, as I've argued before, is the kind Christians should absolutely celebrate.

Black Lightning is neither campy nor po-faced: it doesn't ignore graphic evil but nor does it luxuriate in it. It portrays a tension between light and darkness, the cynic and the believer, that's familiar to the Christian life. Sin is profound, but so is salvation.

In Pierce's self-giving convictions, through the virtue exhibited in particular relationships, we glimpse hope and redemption: a reminder that human choices may frequently result in suffering, but they can also promise peace. The hero has gifts, an identity he can't ignore and call on his life. But the path of the righteous is not easy, and he'll have to count the cost if he's to weather it. Black Lightning may be a fantasy, but not one that tries to escape our harrowing and hopeful world: it engages it head on.

'Black Lightning' is available on Netflix now, with new episodes streaming weekly.

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