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racial representation in Salim Akil’s 2018 “Black Lightning”

Netflix’s decision to once again retcon Black Lightning, infamously one of D.C.’s first African
American superheroes, speaks to a broader racialized and holistic revitalization of the genre. Akil’s
commitment to character development and explicit portrayal of institutionalized racism subverts
traditional genre norms, powerfully reflecting our reality back on itself.

Nick Shereikis
It is safe to say that we live in a golden age of superheroes. Upon release, Black Panther

became both the highest grossing solo superhero movie and highest grossing film by an African

American director (“All Time…”). Captain Marvel is now the highest-grossing female-led

superhero movie of all time. Avengers: Endgame not only set domestic records but international

ones as well, as it became both the highest-grossing film and highest opening weekend gross of

all time. Standard-issue superhero television shows like The Flash and Arrow, aired regularly on

major television networks, are available in abundance on Netflix and similar streaming

platforms. We turn to superheroes to remind ourselves that human goodness exists, for

inspiration, and for sheer relief from hard times – and as a result, the costumed crusader is

arguably the most popular media character of the 21st century.

Though we can trace this distinctly American obsession with heroes back to its 1938

origin, however, our willingness to afford heroic representation to minority populations is a little

more sensitive to navigate. It took almost 30 years to see our first representation of African

Americans in the genre, and even then, the character (Black Panther) had direct and

overwhelming ties to the African continent. The black American population lacked powerful or

appropriate representation in the superhero genre until 1977, when D.C. created Black Lightning.

Granted, original versions of the character did little to challenge or contradict popular pervasive

racial stereotypes – but the hero proved resistant to the passing of time and has recently become

an important figure in media representation of African American experiences, concordant with

the CW’s 2018 decision to reboot the series.

This analysis is an examination of Salim Akil’s Black Lightning series’ ability to

appropriately consider and convey black minority experiences in our country through an

inversion of traditional racial superhero genre principals and elements. Though the hero’s comic

origins and portrayal are undeniably fascinating, I will contain my study to the CW’s current

television show in an effort to provide a more comprehensive analysis. The racial construction of

each character in Black Lightning is a careful attempt to reflect the diasporic reality of black

America, and challenge our socially-held standards for the entire superhero genre.

The rationales for this analysis are twofold. First, there is a distinct lack of scholarly

research into this subject. Akil’s Black Lightning is a recent phenomenon, though the story

boasts decades of relevance, and consequently has not yet received the same degree of attention

as some of its fictional counterparts. Emphatically, many of the existing in-depth analyses of the

show occur within popular, rather than scholarly, outlets and fail to consider the show’s relation

to hegemonic or traditional genre traits. Extensive academic consideration of the show, and

specifically its racially laden relation to the holistic genre, will contribute greatly towards

increasing our understanding of said literature.

Moreover, this analysis will define and outline Black Lightning’s capacity to shape media

portrayal and audience perception of American minority communities. In his article “Literature

as Equipment for Living,” communication studies scholar Kenneth Burke argues that we use

entertainment rhetoric to guide our daily lives. Though he begins by demonstrating this theory

through proverbial examples, Burke extends his application to other literature as well, arguing

that even “the most complex and sophisticated works of art [can] legitimately be considered

somewhat as ‘proverbs writ large’” (Burke 296). The relevance of this article to my work exists

at a formal level – even rhetoric dealing with fictional problems, like those of superheroes,

contains theme and messaging directly applicable to reality. Despite Black Lightning’s clear and

obvious fictional nature, the show’s racial rhetoric both reflects on and interacts with our real-

world perceptions of race and, consequently, our messaging. A deeper understanding of Black

Lightning’s capacity to challenge racial genre tropes and prejudice allows us to make

connections to our own lives and to assess how the show might influence its audience.

I will begin this analysis with a consideration of Critical Race Theory, explicitly

identifying the theoretical approach’s dominant thematic tenets. I will then provide cultural

context for Black Lightning itself, briefly outlining the Netflix series’ plot and assessing its

immediate reception. I will subsequently combine these two theoretical exercises, ultimately

applying critical race theory to the program to exhaustively analyze racial representation and

trope within the series contextualized by traditional elements of the superhero genre.

Critical Race Theory

A theoretical and interpretative approach to rhetorical criticism, Critical Race Theory

(CRT) considers the positionality of race in popular mediated forms of expression. CRT scholars

are predominantly interested in understanding how victims of systemic racism are affected by

cultural racial perceptions, and how these demographics can employ mediated messaging to

counter prejudice. “Our social world…is not fixed,” communication theorists Richard Delgado

and Jean Stefancic tell us, “We need not acquiesce in arrangements that are unfair and one-sided.

By writing and speaking against them, we may hope to contribute to a better, fairer world” (3).

Consequently, those employing CRT seek tangible, real-world application from the intellectual

and theoretical work they perform.

CRT scholarship presents racism as a quotidian, even mundane, element of American

life. It traces our nation’s glacial racial progress, from slavery to police brutality, in parallel with

cultural texts. Literature, music, television – virtually every piece of entertainment we consume

contains heuristic messaging designed to either reinforce our challenge our perceptions of what

race is and how it manifests (Cole 6). In extracting and analyzing these themes, CRT scholars

attempt to confront those beliefs and practices that enable racism to persist while simultaneously

seeking liberation from systematic racism. Subsequently, scholarship often presses the

importance of listening to diverse voices – not just racially, but considering membership to class,

gender, sexual orientation, and an entire host of other primordial human identities.

Though CRT literature often deals with explicitly racial content – Ava DuVernay’s When

They See Us, for instance – the theoretical approach itself is applicable to even the most minutely

subtle racial representation. Theresa Donofrio and Alyssa Samek’s racial critique of Notorious

R.B.G., even, examines the film’s foundational contrast between Supreme Court Justice Ruth

Bader Ginsburg’s “small,” “octogenarian,” “white” body with that of Christopher George Latore

Wallace’s “larger than life” black body (1). The duo ultimately conclude that the film’s

constructions of mortality and discrimination affirm whiteness at the expense of truly progressive

political commentary; critical race theory reminds us that we should never be comfortable

passively consuming any mediated popular culture.

Racial Comic Evolution

Perpetually in sync with the rest of American popular culture, the comics pages evolved

slowly. Early racial representation in the genre tended toward broad racial stereotypes, even in

when artists and writers meant well. Gradually, though, creators began to recognize the need for

minority – and pronouncedly black – representation. The first African American heroes were

crude, hastily constructed conglomerations of exoticized prejudice and stereotype, but they

nonetheless paved the way for the racial renaissance we are currently witnessing in the genre.

Racial comic evolution is often considered in distinct chronological eras, each featuring

distinct stylistic content and accoutrement. The first, sometimes colloquially referred to as the

‘Ebony era,’ blatantly reinforced systematic racism. Even innovative cartoonist Will Eisner

succumbed to hegemonic whiteness – the artist’s 1940s debut of Ebony, a big-eyed, large-lipped

sidekick, did nothing to ameliorate the situation (Murray). Though Eisner later revolted against

universal bigotry and cancelled the character, the controversy speaks to the broadly accepted

intolerance pervasive in the genre.

In the decades after Ebony quietly disappeared, few artists or writers dared touch such

controversial commentary. Black heroes graced comic pages periodically – from African

chieftain Waku to western gunfighter Lobo – but minority representation remained

inconsequential until the now-sensational Black Panther debuted in a July 1966 edition of

Fantastic Four (Woodall). Wakandan king T’Challa gave rise to a new kind of black hero,

acknowledging diasporic African heritage to reflect the flourishing Black Power movement, and

signified to readers that Marvel Comics were serious about addressing mediated racism. In the

years that followed, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby introduced a series of subsequent

heroes – Luke “Power Man” Cage, Bill “Black Goliath” Foster, Sam “Falcon” Wilson, Eric

“Blade” Brooks, and James Rhodes epitomized this cultural zeitgeist, paving the way for a new

era of comic racial representation (Demby; Woodall).

Forever chasing their pop culture counterparts, D.C. Comics struggled to integrate their

pages. It was not until 1971 that they successfully debuted a minority character; writers Dennis

O’Neil and Neal Adams pioneered auxiliary Green Lantern hero John Stewart in 1971,

portraying him as a defiantly angry black man ready to take on the universe with his fists

(Murray). This stylistic choice solidified D.C.’s model for minority representation – when Black

Lightning finally debuted in 1977, the hero’s standoffishness and refusal to conform to the

Justice League of America’s standards defined his story (Demby). D.C.’s immediate efforts to

increase racial diversity seemed, for a long while, all flash.

Following drastic consolidation in the late ‘70s, the superhero comics business boomed

again in the ‘80s. Serious influx in demand forced a flood of new titles and characters – one of

whom found a place on the legendary Teen Titans pantheon. D.C.’s debut of Victor Stone,

informally known as Cyborg, indicated they finally understood the importance of racial

representation (Demby; Murray). Though his racial identity is integral to his character, it is not

what defines him; Cyborg is a character first and a symbol second.

Comic integration continued throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, without much fanfare. John

Stewart became a figurehead, James Rhodes became an integral part of the Iron Man series, and

forgotten heroes like Luke Cage and Black Lightning reintroduced themselves. Almost more

importantly, however, black creators and animators began finding their place in the genre.

Dwayne McDuffie’s work creating Static revolutionized the genre, as did Denys Cowan’s artistic

portrayal of Steel, Power Man, and Deathlok. Today’s heroes are still undeniably and

hegemonically white, but genre artists and writers are ever so slowly normalizing diverse racial


Retconned Black Lightning

Black Lightning originally debuted in 1977. D.C. Comic’s third African American

superhero, the character failed to make immediate impact on the genre – just 11 issues were

published before the 1978 ‘D.C. implosion,’ during which more than two dozen ongoing and

planned series were suddenly and inexplicably cancelled (Shiach). The original Black Lightning

character generated controversy in its capitulation to racial stereotype – the hero donned a

combined afro/wig mask to fight crime, affecting an exaggerated Harlem jive vernacular to

conceal his identity as highly intelligent and respected high school principal Jefferson Pierce

(Nama 26).

Tony Isabella and Trevor von Eden’s indigenous Black Lightning featured an elementally

non-racialized reality. Racial prejudice and tension is ever-present in the series – even the

Metropolis borough’s colloquial name, the ‘Suicide Slum,’ suggests that the only way to escape

the low-income, predominantly black neighborhood is by killing oneself – but the series leaves

little holistic room to ruminate on or reflect the era’s explicit racism. Protagonists, villains,

second-degree characters – virtually everyone in the comic is African American and,

consequently, audiences are never subjected to the discomfort of charged interracial interaction.

Even more disquietingly, the hero’s black middle-class status was also the source of multiple

anxieties. “His black bourgeoisie sensibility clashed with a superhero persona that delivered

affected black dialect,” scholar Adilifu Nama tells us, “A crude racial signifier that attempted to

demonstrate that Black Lightning was an authentic black hero not alienated from the inner-city

streets he swore to protect” (25). The original Black Lightning was a black superhero created for

a black audience in an era of blaxploitation, and so functioned primarily to tokenize minorities

while simultaneously generating profit.

Though the character has been retconned an almost unprecedented number of times,

certain elements of the Black Lightning story persist throughout. Jefferson Pierce, former

Olympian and highly intelligent public high school professional, feels a moral obligation to use

his skills to fight crime. Whether his powers come from a technologically advanced power belt

or a mutated metagene, they functionally remain the same: electrical manipulation, and the

associated perks that come along with it. Pierce has a wife and two daughters, both of whom

evolve into superheroes themselves, and is an incredibly engaged member of his community.

The characters are contextualized by their environment, a fictional and predominantly black

Metropolis ghetto, in which crime and poverty run rampant.

Racial Representation in Black Lightning

Salim Akil’s adaptation of the popularly controversial comic character is structured to do

what early models could not: accurately and realistically reflect structural racial injustice. The

Netflix series’ dedication to character development is almost unparalleled in the genre;

showrunners made unprecedented decisions, even riskily gifting new LGBTQIA+ identities to

grounding characters. Where the original Black Lightning comics struggled to critique or even

consider institutional racism in any meaningful way, Akil’s neo-liberal retcon painstakingly and

explicitly explores the systematic handicapping of black American communities through the

evolution and ideology of individual persons.

Furthermore, Akil’s commitment to individualized character development coincides

neatly with racial positionality within the series. Netflix’s Black Lightning subverts traditional

racial genre representation in many ways; though Akil’s Black Lightning is in constant conflict

with both hegemonic whiteness and blackness, the show’s character dynamics present

institutionalized whiteness as decidedly more problematic – a clear response to the genre’s

historical binary representation of whiteness as ‘good’ and anything else as ‘bad.’ This inversion

is clearly presented throughout as showrunners introduce audiences to a string of lesser

antagonists, almost all of whom are white, but is epitomized in arch-villain Tobias Whale’s

constant struggle with albinism. This unambiguous juxtaposition of white-colored villainy with

black heroism, considered alongside Akil’s reduction of other white characters to supporting

roles, radically challenges the superhero genre’s established racial doctrine.

The series’ careful construction and consideration of character relationships and

ideologies also lends itself to explicit thematic content paralleling contemporary racial tension.

These distinct scenes and plot threads are powerful because they are lurid; audience discomfort

is the goal. Akil’s Black Lightning brings us to Freeland, a sprawling slum supervised by both

the 100 (a distinctly violent gang) and corruptly racist police. Rampant drug use, facilitated by

blatantly organized crime, forces protagonist Jefferson Pierce, respected principal of Garfield

High School, to readopt his suited heroic persona: Black Lightning.

Character Development

Though comic writers are renowned for their ability to construct entire universes from

nothing but their imagination, the television form holds certain advantages. Akil’s mediated

platform enables and facilitates his commitment to character development, allowing realistic

character representation unfound in any comic adaptation. Jefferson Pierce, the show’s primary

protagonist, is developed the most meticulously – but the courtesy is extended to both his

immediate family and a slew of villains as well.

Jefferson Pierce’s character development hinges on his capacity to balance the

professional and vigilante aspects of his life. Fascinatingly, those around Pierce often interpret

his professional qualities and aspirations as performative whiteness. This perception distances

the hero from his own community while simultaneously granting him token access to a white-

dominated managerial world. Ironically, it is Pierce’s heroic alter ego – Black Lightning – that

his community identifies with, as a cathartic symbol of frustration and hope. This juxtaposition is

evident even early in the series; one particularly provoking scene physically positions Pierce

between Henderson (an extension of the Freeland police force) and Reverend Jeremiah Holt (an

impassioned local church leader). When Holt’s impassioned sermon inspires parishioners to take

the streets in protest against police ineptitude, Henderson scolds the reverend for whipping the

congregation into a frenzy while wearing a $26,000 gold watch (“Lawanda: The Book of

Burial”). The situation escalates until Pierce is forced to step between the two men, at which

point Holt tells Pierce the community is losing faith in the principal’s ideology while

simultaneously embracing Black Lightning’s presence. “Now it seems like the only ones you

care about are the ones in your school or the ones in your home,” Holt reprimands, “With Black

Lightning’s help…we can save this community” (“Lawanda…”). Through such dialogue, Akil

emphasizes Pierce’s challenge: restoring his status as a black community leader while

simultaneously masquerading as a crime-fighting vigilante hero.

As briefly mentioned above, character development opportunities are also granted to

Pierce’s immediate family. Emphasis is placed not just on Lynn Stewart’s maternal inclinations

but also her professional profile, which ultimately holds intense significance in the series’

overarching conflict. The couple’s eldest daughter, Anissa Pierce, quickly becomes a hero in her

own right as well; we as an audience are routinely allowed access to her personal life (including

her LGBTQIA+ evolution). Jennifer Pierce, the youngest of the family, is integral to supporting

character Khalil’s journey – and promises to become more powerful and prominent in future


Even the show’s villains are thoroughly developed. Tobias Whale is not some unseen and

unexplained evil force; his traumatic childhood is carefully bared across many episodes. Whale’s

father – Eldridge – is abusive towards his son, primarily because of his albinism (Whale is

quickly ostracized from his community because of his ‘white’ coloring), and the absence of a

maternal figure exacerbated the situation. Whale’s younger sister, Tori, also suffered;

consequently, the pair are forever bonded. Attention is given not just to Whale’s criminal career,

but the socio-personal environmental elements that caused it.

Racial Positionality

Akil’s pronounced character development gives rise to a new form of racial positionality

in the superhero genre. White characters are demoted to supporting or villainous roles –

government officials with flexible morality, or agents of chaos – while black bodies and

characters are most prominent. In this way, Akil subverts the genre’s historically white tropism,

creating a space for realistic and developed minority representation.

Peter Gambi is complex enough a character to warrant more attention than he is given. A

former covert government agent, the Italian American man-behind-the-scenes is arguably one of

the most influential people in Pierce’s life. Adopted father, trainer, costume designer – Gambi is

unambiguously positioned as a ‘good’ guy, despite his injurious past. Importantly, though,

Gambi is only presented in relation to Pierce – he has no story without the titular Black

Lightning, reinforcing the prominence and importance of black bodies in the show.

The revelation that Gambi once worked for a maliciously immoral government agency

covertly experimenting on minority citizens is an important one. The minor protagonist’s

connection to the government – a ‘white’ institution – introduces a hegemonically bad force.

Where superheroes like Superman or Captain America work to protect American institutions,

Black Lightning is forced into conflict with them. This, again, is another way Akil breaks the

mold and uses the genre’s established clichés to mirror racial reality, suggesting that even when

they have extraordinary power, African American citizens are manipulated and oppressed by

their government.

Tobias Whale is another captivatingly positioned character. Whale is black without the

blackness and is instinctively punished for breaking the binary. Ostracized by his community,

emotionally and physically abused by his father – Whale’s villainy is the product of lifelong

isolation and frustration. His alignment with a white ruling class is an act of revenge against a

people that exiled him, a structurally complex indictment of whiteness. Akil’s decision to

incorporate albinism into his archvillain’s story speaks to the positionality of whiteness in the

series – even though Whale is not truly white, his coloring separates him from his community

and consequently reinforces thematic inversion of traditional racial roles (where whiteness is

accepted and celebrated).

Thematic Racial Conflict

Given both the character’s comic origin and Akil’s devotion to realistic interpretation of

institutionalized racism, racial conflict in Black Lightning is an inevitability. This becomes clear

almost immediately; the show’s 2018 season premiere has barely begun when Jefferson Pierce

(played by actor Cress Williams) is unjustly stopped by the police. He is forced to choose

between standing up for himself, risking being shot in front of his daughters and revealing his

power – as the streetlights flicker ominously behind him – or following the officers’ directions

with the knowledge that he is being racially profiled for his blackness (“The Resurrection”). As

universal as the scene is, it is simultaneously modelled on Akil’s real experience. “I had been

stopped by the police quite a few times,” he told The New York Times, “My anger…was about to

get my killed. At a certain point, I closed my eyes and took a moment. And I asked myself, is

this really worth dying for?” (Itzkoff). Akil’s mediated reflection of this broadly personal

phenomenon – the criminalization of ‘driving while black’ – introduces audiences to the city of

Freeland that Pierce (or Black Lightning) has sworn to protect, while indicating showrunners will

not hesitate to call attention to the reality of American racism. This proves true throughout the

rest of the season, crystallizing in Anissa Pierce’s destruction of a Confederate statue (“Three

Sevens: The Book of Thunder”).

This intuitive and explicit consideration of contemporary racism is prominent throughout

each of Black Lightning’s three seasons. Season two features a myriad of distinctly racialized

disputes, but the thematic conflict is most succinctly epitomized in episode 11. Following

supporting character Khalil’s redemption and subsequent death, emotions are running high – so

when an obnoxious white woman unjustly accuses protagonist Jennifer Pierce of malicious

intent, our heroine discreetly blows up the woman’s car (“The Book of Secrets: Chapter One:

Prodigal Son”). Here, again, Akil plays off real-world racist behavior (the series of white women

publicly calling the police on black people for innocuous activity) to highlight and challenge

cultural American racism through superpowered mediation. This continuation of explicitly

racialized conflict – and especially racism unrelated to prominent plot points – indicates to us the

urgency of inequality and ideological injustice in our country.

If anything, Black Lightning season three hones this racial mirroring. The premiere sets

the tone: 37 days after a metahuman prison break, the American government (and specifically

the military) establishes forceful presence in Freeland (“The Book of Occupation: Chapter One:

Birth of Blackbird”). The detainment centers created in the show reproduce contemporary Texas

border camps – kids walking the street at constant risk of profiling, capture, and inhumane

incapacitation. This parallel is direct but not pedagogical; its power is in the quietly simplistic

accuracy with which it reflects political reality.

Salim Akil’s approach to character development and racial positionality within Black

Lightning allows for these direct, pure, unfiltered refractions of real-world racial tension. They

occur frequently throughout each season, often empowered by their disconnect to critical plot

lines; Akil successfully recreates systematic racism to mirror its complicated reality as an

intensely unjust burden certain communities and bodies must carry.

Black Lightning in Contemporary Culture

In an era defined by evolving mediated racial representation, Salim Akil’s exploration

and inversion of culturally constructed blackness holds intensely appropriate meaning. “I’ve

been given a gift,” Akil said of the show, “And I have to use the way I think I’m intended to use

it – to talk about the things I feel people need to talk about” (Itzkoff). Netflix’s 2018 Black

Lightning is intended to be a cathartic representation of our racial reality, challenging audiences

to carefully consider both their own ingrained ideological judgment system and the

institutionalized racism so many are subjected to every day.

Akil subverts the superhero genre through intense character development, dynamic racial

positionality, and explicit scenes paralleling real-world racial tension. The final product – Black

Lightning – is an almost painfully accurate mirror of our own fractured and problematic country.

The show is important not just as a minority representation stopgap, though it is important to

represent pronounced diversity in media, but as a challenge to audiences to engage with that

which makes them uncomfortable. “We can all get into this fight, at whatever place in our lives,

at whatever age,” Akil tells us. “There’s a lot to fix, a lot to make right, and it’s not going to

solve itself” (Itzkoff). The showrunner’s message is clear, both here and throughout the series:

we must make cultural and political changes now to end socialized and institutionalized racism.

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