Superheroes have taken over pop culture, which has led to a boom of superhero TV in recent years. But those shows and their lead characters have mostly been white. OK, Marvel’s Luke Cage is glaring over at that assertion. So that’s an obvious exception.
But other than the third of Netflix’s four Marvel shows, a superhero TV show hasn’t been led by a black character before. That’s going to change next season. The CW picked up the pilot for Black Lightning, another series developed by Greg Berlanti, the man responsible for the wave of DC Comics-based superhero TV that includes Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. And on Friday, the network announced that Cress Williams (Code Black) will play the lead.
Produced by Mara Brock Akil (The Game, Being Mary Jane) and Salim Akil, Black Lightning was originally developed for Fox, but the network passed on the series. Jumping over to The CW seemed like a natural fit, since Berlanti already has four superhero shows there.
Created in the late-1970s by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden for DC Comics, Black Lightning was one of the first African American superheroes. In the original comic books, Jefferson Pierce was a former Olympic athlete born with the power of electricity. Following the murder of his father, Pierce returns to his old neighborhood to become a high school principal and decides to use his abilities to fight crime when one of his students is killed by gang violence.
In the TV series, Pierce retired his superhero identity after his daughter was born. But when she wants to do something about local crime and a top student is being recruited by a local gang, he decides to jump back into the costumed crimefighter game.
On The CW, Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow all are headlined primarily by white characters. We should give Supergirl some credit for having a female superhero lead. There aren’t many of those, either.
To be fair, those shows have people of color. Arrow has Diggle (David Ramsey) as a key part of the hero’s team, while Mr. Terrific (Echo Kellum) and Wild Dog (Rick Gonzalez) have appeared during the past two seasons. The Flash has Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), along with Iris (Candice Patton), Joe (Jesse L. Martin) and Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale). Legends has Firestorm (Franz Drameh), along with Hawkgirl (Ciara Renée) in season one and Vixen (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) part of season two’s ensemble. Dr. Mid-Nite (Kwesi Ameyaw) also had recurring appearances recently.
While Black Lightning has been on other DC Comics cartoons, such as Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Young Justice: Invasion and DC Nation animated shorts (as seen above), the character was also once on live-action TV… on Saturday Night Live. No, really.
After DC Comics’ “The Death of Superman” storyline was a pop culture phenomenon in 1992, SNL wrote a skit about Superman’s funeral. Batman, The Flash and Lex Luthor are among those in attendance. But Black Lightning (played by Sinbad) also attempts to express his condolences, only to be turned away by Jimmy Olsen (Rob Schneider) when no one vouches for him. Batman not speaking up seems especially harsh, considering they worked together on several cases and was even a part of his superhero team, The Outsiders. What the hell?
Presumably, Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil will come up with a better story than Black Lightning using a paper bag to sneak out shrimp that Aquaman brought to Superman’s funeral.
And fortunately, DC Comics updated the very dated costume that Black Lightning wore through the 1970s and 1980s. Thought SNL and Sinbad deserve credit for being faithful to the character’s original look with its open collar that ran all the down to his belt. Had to show off the chest back then. Hey, Luke Cage had to do it too.
One more interesting tidbit if you’re a longtime fan of superhero comic books and cartoons, courtesy of Birth.Movies.Death’s Devin Faraci: Black Lightning was supposed to be part of the Super Friends, but Hanna-Barbera couldn’t get the rights to the character from Isabella. So the cartoon came up with Black Vulcan as a replacement. (If you watch the DC Nation short embedded above, you can briefly see Black Vulcan’s costume in the left corner at the beginning of the clip.)
No word on when Black Lightning could debut on The CW, as it’s likely contingent on what the network thinks of the pilot. But given Berlanti’s track record of success, along with Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, and the bad look that would come from not picking up a superhero TV show featuring a black character, the pilot would have to be awful not to get an initial series order from the network. And with the timetable in place, a fall or winter premiere seems likely.