I’m Lovin’ ‘Black Lightning’ for all the same reasons I Hated ‘Luke Cage’ (and I’m an MCU Fan!)
“Marvel does folklore and DC does myth. So, myth is harder. Folklore is Paul Bunyan but myth is Odysseus. It’s very hard to do a Batman movie and it’s very hard to do a Superman movie. I think it’s easier to do a Spider-Man movie because he’s kind of like the guy next door. I’m not attempting to diminish the [pre-MCU Marvel films], but I’m just saying I can understand why DC has to struggle a bit harder to do justice to the characters.”
— Frank Miller, interviewed by Suicide Girls, 2 August 2005
[NOTE: For my critical rating of the first two episodes, see this same essay as written on my personal blog.]
I’m not the first one to say this, nor shall I be the last, but being really good at one thing doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be good at another thing. Just look at Cheo H. Coker. As a Hip-Hop-lovin’ ’90s Black teen, Coker was one of the journalists that made me want to take up that very profession. His peers included dream hampton, Ronin Ro, and Kevin Powell, to name a few. The way they wrote about Hip-Hop — not only its artistic merits, but the way they observed the performers — was reassuring to me as I watched my favorite genre attacked from all sides by the press. (To be fair, a lot of the criticisms — like the rampant misogyny — were valid points. But that was never all it was.) Seeing their names pop up in a byline in Vibe or The Source was something that commanded my full attention.
Then… Cheo tried to be a screenwriter. Now look, wanting to branch out beyond your proven specialty isn’t a problem — hell, everyone should try to stretch their legs. The problem is that Cheo Coker is not now, has never been, and appears to have no interest in ever becoming good at it. Just as Amiri Baraka was an excellent poet who should have never tried to write plays, Coker was a great journalist who had no business screenwriting. I was willing to overlook Notorious because it was co-written with Reggie Rock Bythewood, but his later screenwriting clearly proved which Notorious flaws were Cheo’s: the bad characterization; the genre clichés; his tin ear for dialogue; and his hypocritical proselytizing about how Black people shouldn’t say “nigga”. (This in a biopic about The Notorious BIG, whose songs included “Niggas Bleed”.)
That’s why when I saw he was both head writer and showrunner for Marvel/Netflix’s Luke Cage, my heart sank. All the Cheo H. flaws were there, along with some new one. Granted, the middle S1 episodes he didn’t write are actually okay, but when I think of the Harlem onlookers chanting “Luke! Luke!” during the finale, it makes me want the WGA to strip Coker of all accreditation.
What, you may ask, has all of this to do with Black Lightning, DC Comics’ latest show for The CW Network? Three things: 1 — it’s the sort of dramatic, realistic, competently-written show we Black fans have wanted for years; 2 — it’s making its Black women just as important (if not more so) than Black the Black male ones; and 3 — if the rest of the episodes are as good as the first, DC’s film/tv division may finally have done something better than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I mean, all of DC’s non-Wonder Woman flicks still suck, but they might have this.
In two episodes (as of this writing), Black Lightning and creator/showrunner/head writer Salim Akil have accurately portrayed something I can’t recall every being shown as well on American television; something that’s usually either played off as a joke or characteristic of villainy — both portrayed through “straw men” characters; something Black folks spend a lot of time suppressing; something White people fall back on when someone Black does something as peaceful as taking a knee.
The show gets Black Rage.
Not just the rage that comes from being a Black parent worried that your child won’t come home that night (although that’s in the show); not just the rage of being pulled out of your car by gun-wielding cops because you “fit the description” (also in the show); not just the rage of being a thug with a gun or the one staring down the barrel of that gun (check); it’s not even limited to rage of being a Black woman, which I couldn’t even begin to list here.
No… Black Lightning is about all of it. It’s about every idiosyncratic headache that comes with being Black in America working to boiling point and manifesting itself in a literal bolt of lightning.
As a former ’80s kid and ’90s teen, I remember Black Rage being something to never take seriously, so far as tv and films were concerned. In Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, Hooper X’s (yes, that’s the character’s name) Black Power minstrel show end with him playing up his mau-mau routine by shooting a gun in the air and literally shouting — wait for it — “Black rage!” As much as I’d love to solely black Smith’s ignorance, shows like Martin and movies like CB4 didn’t help matters either.
Then there were shows like Monday Night RAW, which had the infamous “Nation of Domination”. This all-Black team of villains (featuring a young Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson”) were evil because they demanded — get this — equal representation for the Black members of the then-WWF roster. The nerve of them! And they’re raising their fists in the air?! Someone give me some pearls to clutch! Thank heavens we have the “rebellious” young White boys of D-X and beer-swilling redneck “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to put them in their place!
And these are just a few examples off the top of my head; I don’t want to take up too much of you time recanting the cartoonish Black Panthers from Forrest Gump or… well… all the Black characters in the Rocky films. Suffice it to say, it sends a strong message to a Black adolescent when mainstream culture tells them their concerns and frustrations are either laughable or dangerous.
Of course, it’s no mystery as to why these bullshit representations are the norm: they weren’t made by Black people.
We’re living in an interesting time regarding cultural representation in the media. We’ve gone from the days when Katharine Hepburn or Mickey Rooney could slip on yellowface and no one would bat an eye. No, these days, when PoC-specific characters from Avartar: The Last Airbender, Death Note, and Ghost in the Shell are remade with all-/mostly-White casts, you will hear about. And there will be repercussions for it.
That doesn’t mean everything has improved. As much as I dug Doctor Strange, not a single good answer was given was given as to why Marvel cast The Elder as White. (Gender-swapped, fine — but then why not cast Maggie Cheung, Gong Li, or Michelle Yeoh instead of Tilda Swinton?) Still, it’s to the company’s credit that they put both Luke Cage and Black Panther into the hands of Black artists.
In fact, that’s probably the most disappointing thing about Luke Cage S1 for me: it doesn’t feel like anyone’s trying. It preaches being uplifting, but is unapologetically exploitative with its sex and violence; it has a Bill Cosby-style finger-wagging about Black people who say “nigga,” but seems to have no problem with musical guests Method Man and Jidenna dropping it in their lyrics; it’s constantly trying to find its footing as a “gritty” Wire-style crime drama, but constantly gives After-School Special orations about morals. I watched the season thinking “Is this as far as Black heroes have comes since bullshit like Meteor Man?”
Now… contrast that with double-edged sword of “Black excellence” as portrayed in Black Lightning. When Jefferson Pierce, the titular hero, picks up his daughter Anissa from the police station for protesting, he’s quick to throw out quotes from Dr. King, which she already knows by heart. This happens a few more times in the episode and first hearing it made me roll my eyes, but something occurred to me as I went back over that first episode. You see, Pierce gave up being Black Lightning nine years prior due to the toll it took on his body. His now-estranged wife referred to it as an addiction — an idea still being explored in the second episode. He then poured his focus directly into raising their daughters and his role as a school principal. He’s now the sort of award-winning, clean-cut Black man that White people would never fear.
And you can tell that he hates it.
When the throws Dr. King quotes at his daughter, he isn’t trying to convince her to walk the straight and narrow — he’s trying to convince himself. Like Kevin Costner’s “reformed” serial killer in Mr. Brooks, constantly chanting The Serenity Prayer to convince himself he’s as good a person as his family and friends think. Pierce’s role as principal may produced record graduating numbers, but turning his back on crime-fighting left a vacuum in the city. It’s only a matter of time before the harm comes to his door — which it does, in the form of Lala, a former student of his turned mini-kingpin. One of Lala’s none-too-bright underlings kidnaps Jefferson’s daughters, and he knows the only way to get them back to take real action.
Black people often walk a tightrope with their rage: do we adopt the more stoic anger of Dr. King (and make no mistake, conservative revisionists, it was anger) or the more open hostility of Malcolm X? The problem is that the choice is often made for us.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a big MCU fan. Hell, I haven’t even seen Justice League because I’ve been burned by the DCEU too many times now (save for Wonder Woman). Hell, I haven’t even seen a single show of the Supergirl/Arrowverse until now (wait… is Black Lightning part of universe?).
If it’s a choice, I’ll gladly go for the company that actually wants to make relatable characters and enjoyable films. But both companies are capable of fuck-ups. Just as Luke Cage S1 was mediocre, I haven’t even seen Iron Fist because I haven’t heard a single good thing about it. I stopped watching Agents of SHIELD halfway through it’s first year (though I hear it got better — I was also a devout viewer of Peggy Carter). And Inhumans…. just… fuckin’… no.
Having said that, I’m not blind to Black Lightning’s flaws, as show in these two episodes. The dialogue is good, but it has two main flaws. 1 — it’s so determined not to use the word “nigga” that it’s constantly drawing attention to itself for not doing so (no one in 2018 would say “Negro, please!”). 2 — I know we’re just meeting these characters, but we do not need so many exposition dumps. When younger daughter Jennifer meets her boyfriend Khalil in the gym, I can buy him chastising her for drinking in school… but then he gives her his whole life story in one clumsy-ass monologue as he puts on his shirt. Salim Akil — for God’s sake, there’s way to tell us who these characters are without it sounding like a goddamn Wikipedia entry.
Its other main problem is something that is by no means limited to this show, channel, or format. It’s the way it’s shot. Don’t get me wrong, it looks good. But the editing cuts every shot to barely-a-second. I don’t know what the fuck they’re teaching kids in film school these days, but you don’t have to get footage from every possible angle just so the editor has something to cut together! Decide what you want to do and do it. This show’s editing reeks of overshot footage cobbled together, and the sad thing is they it’s not unique — this is the state of television today.
But I digress.
As someone who grew up with only one lasting Black hero (Storm — I’ll be writing about her very soon), I’m always on the lookout for more melanin-heavy heroes. Additionally, the past decade has seem me turn over more-than-a-few of my hard-earned pesos to the MCU because they’ve shown a preference for emotional investment over empty style.
The latter case seems to be reversed with the first two episodes of Black Lightning and the first year of Luke Cage. Will that continue to be the case? Will Cage finally step up in S2 ? Will Black Lightning squander its well-earned momentum in its very next episode?
Only time will tell. But it’s a fun time to Black superhero fan. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see if there are anymore Black Panther tix available.