Black Lightning is my new favorite show. It’s not because of the story, though I found myself transfixed by the opening scene– from the moment Strange Fruit began to play, spliced with the achingly familiar media coverage in the aftermath of another Black child being shot to death, it was clear the series aimed to confront the tensions caused by anti-Black racism. It’s not because of the casting, though the acting is what makes the Pierce family so compelling to follow. It’s not because of the soundtrack, although who doesn’t love a bit of Gil Scott Herron? It’s not even because of the slick choreography behind the combat scenes, though I have to admit they’re exciting to watch. Black Lightning is my new favorite show because of Anissa Pierce, Black lesbian and burgeoning superhero.
We first meet the Peirce family in the lobby of Freeland Police Department. Jefferson Pierce, once the vigilante known as Black Lightning, has hung up his cape (more accurately: bodysuit, dark glasses, and voice modulator) to focus on caring for the children of Freeland – whether they are his own daughters, Anissa and Jennifer, or the students he oversees as Principal of the local high school. He uses his power as a pillar of the community to have Anissa sprung from jail after she was arrested “for trying to be Harriet Tubman” at a rally reminiscent of a Black Lives Matter protest – Anissa’s political engagement, along with her courage in standing up to violence against the Black community, is central to her character.
Even before Anissa’s sexuality is confirmed, it becomes clear that she is the one to watch. And although it’s an early contender, watching Anissa take down the boy who attempts to sell her sister into the sex industry has got to be my Black feminist television highlight of 2018. In Anissa Pierce, Black Lightning gifted us with a Black lesbian character that is clever, motivated, devoted to her family, and in possession of some kick-ass self-defense moves.
Seeing Anissa Pierce on screen, seeing a woman whose life mirrors my own grow into a superhero, I can’t help but wonder: Is this how white people feel when they watch television? Is this how straight people feel when they watch television? There is something magical about the possibility that someone like you – someone who looks like you do and loves like you do – could be heroic. What would it be like to see a reflection of yourself valorised on-screen, celebrated as a hero, on a regular basis? I can barely begin to imagine or such representation being a staple rather than a rare, exotic treat in my diet of film and television.
Nafessa Williams, who plays Anissa, understands the importance of representation. Speaking of the role, she says “I didn’t have this coming up as a Black little girl. I didn’t see myself as a superhero. So I’m really excited for, say, Halloween or just the representation, just to tune in on the TV every week, that [black kids] can say, ‘Wow, there’s a superhero who looks like me, who I could be probably, who actually looks like me, who actually are going through the same issues that I’m going through in my everyday life.’”
Until Black Lightning, I had largely given up on superhero stories because almost all of them are set in worlds where whiteness is ubiquitous, where Black and Brown characters could at best expect to play supporting roles in a white man’s story. I loved Netflix’s Jessica Jones, because she showed that a woman can kick ass even as she’s carrying huge amounts of trauma, yet I felt frustrated that the female superheroes were almost invariably white – white, and with a male love interest (don’t get me started on the racial politics of her relationship with Luke Cage).
It was incredible to learn that Anissa Pierce, set to follow in her father’s footsteps and become the vigilante known as Thunder, was a Black lesbian. This positive representation has made waves. Speaking of the response, Williams is conscious of her character’s significance to fans:
“[Anissa’s] been out since she was a teenager. She’s 22 now. She’s walking boldly and unapologetically in who she is. It’s amazing to watch because I’ve been getting on social media a lot of comments. Not even just black lesbians, just young lesbians everywhere who want to see more of themselves on TV and show what the life of a lesbian is like. You’re gonna go on that journey with Anissa. It’s also cool because my parents on the show, they’re very accepting and open about my sexuality. I hope that parents watching are inspired to support their lesbian or gay child.”
Black Lightning has none of the coded allusions of queer-baiting – Anissa and her mother even refer directly to her sexuality in a conversation about sex and relationships – but neither does being a lesbian define Anissa. Lesbianism fits alongside Anissa’s loyalty to her family and her support of the community – it’s a part of who she is.
Black Lightning offers a refreshing view of Black lesbian love, one that is not often shown in the mainstream. Anissa’s sexuality is not fetishized, and her lesbian interactions are not performed for the male gaze. When we see Anissa curled around Chenoa in bed, flirting and snuggling, there is nothing pornified about the scene. It was, if anything, rather wholesome – for the first time, Anissa allows herself to be vulnerable. Instead of protecting her little sister or living up to her parents’ expectations, she opens up about what’s worrying her. Love between Black lesbians is depicted as a place of safety – in that respect, Black Lightning is revolutionary.
Black Lightning can be streamed on CW.