For the record: I think the powers are laughable in the show BLACK LIGHTNING, the villains are cardboard to the extreme, and the eponymous Black Lightning has a supersuit that looks like it has puffy day-glo stickers on it, which makes it IMPOSSIBLE for me to take him seriously.
That said, I’m in it for the long haul. One of the magnificent things about black culture is their emphasis on family and faith, and this show nails it.
The family is one that squabbles, that fights. The father (Black Lightning) and the mother (a scientist type who’s there to provide nifty, high-tech observations like, “According to the MRI, her cells are creating PURE ENERGY”) are divorced, but it’s for one of the best reasons I’ve heard – i.e., “You’re a superhero who comes home beaten half to death more often than not and does a significant amount of bleeding in front of the young kids – and even then, they still LOVE each other. To the point that, after nine years, the father is still chasing the mother, and she’s still doing her best to keep the family together within the structure allowed when one of the people is a vigilante. It’s never addressed directly, but there’s certainly the impression that neither of them has ever dated anyone else in those nine years, either: they’re divorced due to a horrifying circumstance, but have stayed faithful… if not to the letter of their vows, then to the spirit of them. Even when at their worst, neither looks at the other and says, “I wish you were gone from my life. I’m outta here, and I’m finding someone who ‘really understands me.'” This last is particularly amazing since you also get the feeling that both of them – especially BL, who is a major power figure and attention magnet in his “real” life as a high school principal – could have as many dates and relationships as they could possibly wish for… but don’t.
Even as “normal” people, there’s plenty of drama. The older sister works at the same high school where the father works, and where the younger sister goes, and there are family dynamics (read: fights and power struggles) between them all as a consequence. The younger sister is a pretty great depiction of a teen: wanting to be “all growed up,” but acting like a child more often than not. She faces a tough choice when her boyfriend is crippled by an errant bullet… and makes a BAD decision with regard to whether to stay with him (or rather, how she goes about implementing that decision). But it’s a decision that most kids would make. And she has the decency of character to recognize her failing, and to worry over it. It doesn’t motivate a magic change in her: she’s still petty and selfish at times. But it does force her to reassess some things and ask herself what kind of a woman she wants to be. She’s not a saint, but she’s a hopeful sinner – which I think most of us are, in the final analysis.
The older sister is a bit of a snoop and more than a bit bossy. She knows what’s right for everyone, and doesn’t hesitate to say so or to stick her nose in where it really doesn’t belong. In other words: a bang-on older sister.
The mother is headstrong to the point of it being a serious character flaw. She’s smart – at least within the confines of a “smart” scientist in any superhero movie, which is to say she’s there to provide exposition when it’s needed and then make a series of dumb moves “for science!” when a plot needs a bit of punching up, which isn’t a trait that only exists when it’s a woman scientist; it’s what passes for “the smartest of the smart” in ANY superhero story, most of which carry as a core tenet that the Everyman/Everywoman has been gifted with extraordinary powers, and then rises beyond his/her limits to become extraordinary as well.
The father… great. He loves his family, he continues to court his ex-wife as far as she allows, always making it clear he wants more but never so much as breathing a hint that he DOES have other options in his life. He hugs his kids, hollers at them, then hugs them all the harder. He vacillates (and this is a trait he shares with Mom) between holding his kids too close and letting them have too MUCH freedom from parental influence. He is a protector who knows he will ultimately fail – but who refuses to entertain the thought that he cannot protect his family.
They even have an adoptive uncle-figure of sorts who, when it comes out that he made some DEEPLY evil choices when younger and has been doing everything he can to make restitution for them since then and is ostracized by the family to some extent (and by BL completely), does not shrug his shoulders and find greener pastures. Nor does he even act petty about it, crossing his arms and returning tit for tat or refusing to help when needed (and he’s their Oracle character, the one who hacks anything, who provides the inventions that make BL-as-hero possible, and who always knows a bit more about the real danger of their situations than anyone else). He stays in the fight. He continues to offer EVERYTHING he has, and when they take nothing or only the bare minimum for “the mission,” he accepts that and just looks glad at what they’ve given.
A family that loves each other? How odd!
Not only that, but it’s refreshing to see characters who go to church, who pray – and who do so unironically, or without the sensation that the writers are rolling their eyes as they think up the scene. There’s no sense of, “Well, we gotta do THIS thing now. Anyone know where the weirdo intern is so we can ask some questions and feel like we nailed our ‘research’?”
It’s a family of faith – in each other, in their belief in More and Greater Beyond, and in the principle that most people are good. It’s a family I would LOVE to have as neighbors.
And it’s a thing that is sadly rare and sorely missed in mainstream drama, most of which centers on “relationships” between ultimately selfish individuals who are in it for the long haul… or until someone lies, or makes a mistake, or even just wants a job somewhere the significant other “has no friends.” Mainstream drama generally centers on “family” as being a longer-term dating relationship – interesting, even passionate, but destroyed all-too-easily at the first sign of trouble. Kids’ needs are second BY FAR to the couples’ convenience – which makes a certain amount of sense, since most kids are there only to show, “Hey, look! We have a kid so it MUST be real love (for now)!” and are quickly shunted offscreen. A nannie, a tough school curriculum, or the kids being the type who live in the cave of their room and so are never seen – all these are the norm for kids in the families we see. The only exception to this is generally in a sitcom, where the kids ARE front and center… but even then, they’re mostly a sounding board to discuss and highlight the buffoonery of one character (usually the father), or a parent’s lack of understanding of what it’s like to be a “real” kid/teen/young adult (and the offending parent here is usually the mother).
An exception: Black Lightning.
So the heroes are weak, the villains ASPIRE to be two-dimensional, and the hero-villain arcs are themselves hindered by the limited capacities of their players.
And I’m in this superhero show for the foreseeable future. Because it’s obvious that the show’s creators know the real heroes are the mothers and fathers who stand by each other, and sacrifice for the kids; the kids who struggle to find their own way and their own identity, but know what they want in the end is to be something that will make their families – both present and future – proud of them. The people who aren’t a part of the nuclear family, but who are there when needed, as surrogate parent figures or friends.
The “hero,” in fact, isn’t ANY of the people. It’s ALL of them, standing back to back against the challenges of the world. Facing problems together, and with the knowledge that they CAN stand back to back, because those behind and next to them will never abandon the fight, and never abandon THEM.
The hero… is family. And THAT is a hero worth cheering for.