Thunder and Lightning – Feminist Frequency

Thunder and Lightning

Back at the tail end of 2016, dazed from the uppercut of the whitest election result since Andrew Jackson polled his family about whether to have mayonnaise sandwiches or unseasoned chicken for dinner,  I included Marvel’s Luke Cage in my “Fave Five” year-end roundup. What some white critics bemoaned (either obliquely or explicitly) as the show’s off-putting, pervasive in-your-face blackness was precisely the reason I sought out the show. I had a glancing knowledge of Luke Cage, aka “Power Man,” but to be honest, I could only name check him and Iron Fist because Misty Knight (a character I do care about) deigned to give them the time of day across various storylines. As for the rest of The Defenders? If it were not for Netflix rolling out a new candy-colored series every other quarter, I would have gone to my grave never knowing or caring about Daredevil, Jessica Jones, or any of them folks. Now? Shit, I’m in it to win it. Poll me on the minutiae of who is fighting whom in any given arc and I will get the answer right 37% of the time. For me, that’s progress.

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Back at the tail end of 2016, dazed from the uppercut of the whitest election result since Andrew Jackson polled his family about whether to have mayonnaise sandwiches or unseasoned chicken for dinner,  I included Marvel’s Luke Cage in my “Fave Five” year-end roundup. What some white critics bemoaned (either obliquely or explicitly) as the show’s off-putting, pervasive in-your-face blackness was precisely the reason I sought out the show. I had a glancing knowledge of Luke Cage, aka “Power Man,” but to be honest, I could only name check him and Iron Fist because Misty Knight (a character I do care about) deigned to give them the time of day across various storylines. As for the rest of The Defenders? If it were not for Netflix rolling out a new candy-colored series every other quarter, I would have gone to my grave never knowing or caring about Daredevil, Jessica Jones, or any of them folks. Now? Shit, I’m in it to win it. Poll me on the minutiae of who is fighting whom in any given arc and I will get the answer right 37% of the time. For me, that’s progress.

I dipped my toes into the waters of Black Lightning, CW network’s latest superhero show, more because I was missing the ambient blackness of Luke Cage than through any particular interest in the titular character himself. If I know next to nothing about them Marvel maniacs, I know less than nothing about those DC dorks. I was prepared to use Black Lightning as a placeholder until Luke Cage’s return (I’m assuming that BL will go on hiatus when LC comes back — I can’t imagine that The Powers That Be will allow 2 powerful black men on the airwaves at the same time). I didn’t expect to care about Black Lightning. I didn’t expect to love it.

But love it I do. And for precisely the same reasons that black critics across the internet are loving it: it just gets so much right. No one will ever accuse this show of being subtle when speechifying will suffice; but the language still feels so correct. Characters are painted with broad strokes but recognizable ones nonetheless. There is such heart to this show that, three episodes in, it already feels like family.

But to back up: Black Lightning is the story of Jefferson Pierce, a retired superhero who gets pulled back into the world-saving game when the influence of a local gang, the 100, leads to increased mayhem and terror for the citizens of Freeland. 

What are you gonna do? Vigilantes gonna vigilante.

Jefferson co-parents two daughters, Jennifer and Anissa, with his ex-wife, Lynn; and frankly, the family dynamics are almost more entertaining than the crime fighting. Although the Pierce family is no longer the nuclear unit it once was, everyone is still close and involved in each other’s lives. It cannot be overstated how radical it remains to see media depictions of a healthy, affirmative black family. Not a saccharine, trouble-free family by any means, but a family whose love and care reflects genuine depth. An example (and one that’s been widely talked about across many BL thinkpieces since the show’s debut) is the discussion around Anissa, Jefferson’s oldest daughter, a medical student and an out lesbian. What’s so stupendous about that discussion it isn’t a discussion at all. There is no labored coming-out scene; there are no attempts on her part to hide her girlfriend or her sexuality from her parents. Anissa, in all her politically fiery and out glory, is loved and respected by her black parents and it is absolutely wonderful to see.

And when Anissa starts to come into her powers as Thunder, TV’s first black lesbian superhero? Not three seasons down the line when the show needs to mix things up, but in episode motherflipping TWO? Anissa is not background. Thunder will rage across our screens and we will pay homage.

I could go on and on (and I no doubt will continue to, in future episodes of Feminist Frequency Radio), but as we kick off this Black History Month, let me just affirm that you — yes, you — should be watching this show. There is something so powerful about what this show gives us: communities coming together. Families working and struggling together. People laughing and dancing and loving in all their glorious blackness together. Whole dissertations could be written about the ways in which the media has typically shied away from showing black people loving each other. The scenes in which we see Jefferson and Lynn touch each other, or Anissa and her girlfriend curve their bodies around each other is a declaration of black love we don’t often get to see. There is absolutely nothing wrong with interrracial relationships; but the way in which we measure our worth can not be by proving that we are attractive to others.

When I watch this show, I am delighted by all the moments that resonate with me, culturally, in a way that so rarely gets to happen for people of color. White people — especially straight white men — can tune in to almost any show, any film, any piece of music and know that the world they will be shown will be in some way familiar to them, because it has been designed with them in mind. On Tuesday nights, when I holler at a sighting of Clifton Powell (a character actor every black American over the age of 30 will recognize) or laugh along when Jennifer lovingly clowns her sister by calling her “Harriet,” I know that this show was made for me.

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