When you think of a superhero, does a black middle-aged high school principal immediately come to mind? For most people, the answer is no, but for fans of Black Lightning, he’s exactly the kind of superhero we need. Jefferson Pierce a.k.a. Black Lightning is a lesser-known superhero from the DC comic books that first appeared in the 1970s. This unlikely superhero is now getting new life and scores of new fans in the Netflix and CW series Black Lightning.
The titular character is played by Cress Williams, an American actor known for his work on television shows Prison Break, Close to Home, and Hart of Dixie. On the show, we meet Jefferson Pierce when he has left his superhero days behind him, choosing to instead focus his energies on positively impacting the lives of students in the hopes of preventing them from turning to a life of crime. What inspires him to come out of retirement as a superhero is an all-too-relevant storyline: police brutality against black men.
Not dissimilar to Black Panther, Black Lightning is a superhero story that is about more than big thrills and action sequences. As Vox puts it, Black Lightning is trying to “engage in serious discussions of what it means to be black in America, of what it means to be a father in America, and of what it means to be a man in America — and of what it means to be all three in America.” Ira Madison at the Daily Beast writes that the show “juggles police brutality, systemic racism, black youth culture, gang violence, and black parenting with aplomb.” This is definitely a superhero show that will appeal to people who aren’t typically fans of the genre but it’s also one that will satisfy even the biggest comic fans.
Joining Cress Williams is China Anne McClain who plays Pierce’s youngest daughter Jennifer; Nafessa Williams who plays his lesbian oldest daughter Annisa/Thunder who has superhero tendencies of her own; Christine Adams who plays his ex-wife; and Marvin “Krondon” Jones III who plays supervillain Tobias Whale. The cast is rounded out by a stellar panoply of recurring and guest roles.
It’s worth noting that there are three current or recent superhero projects starring black men about black superheroes. Black Panther, Black Lightning, and Luke Cage are all testaments to the need for and importance of representation and also the value of diversity. We are not there yet but the tide is turning.