Black Lightning, Luke Cage & Defining Blackness

This week, the new CW show Black Lightning will introduce another Black superhero — rather, Black superheroes — who will thankfully diversify the current ranks of primarily white TV and movie heroes, but it also raises the question: How will the show address its blackness?

With Black Lightning and Black Panther on the way, we’re finally seeing Black heroes represented on both the small screen and the big screen, and with the amount of publicity they deserve. But for Black people around America — and perhaps around the world — these heroes represent more than just the newest installment of a money-making machine built on franchises. These heroes bring familiar faces — faces that resemble their own — to a universe full of magic, superpowers, superhuman feats and abilities.

Blackness in the Media

But how, exactly, do these heroes represent “blackness”? And what, exactly, is “blackness”? This question is never asked of TV shows, movies, or books that feature white heroes. In writing programs or conferences, you’ll encounter panels and workshops in which people discuss how one may write characters of color with sensitivity. In other words, “How can I make it clear that this character is Black without being offensive?” But it’s more than just an issue of figuring out how to avoid your run-of-the-mill racist language. It’s determining if a character of color needs to be defined by their race.

Because whiteness is our country’s default racial lens, if race isn’t mentioned in a story’s narrative, most people will assume a character is white (take, for example, the “Black Hermione” internet debate). White characters are never characterized by their whiteness unless it serves the plot. So many times, however, Black characters or characters of color are defined by their race. “Black” isn’t a character type, nor is it a personality. And yet, because blackness falls so outside of the norm in common thought, it becomes the defining characteristic of a protagonist.

Did Luke Cage Get It Right?

As Black Lightning premieres this week, there will undoubtedly be comparisons drawn between it and Netflix’s Luke Cage, which showcased a popular Black hero as its protagonist as well. One of the most noteworthy elements of Luke Cage was the way in which it invested itself in presenting Luke as the Black hero. The music, the setting, even the dialogue all pointed to Luke Cage as a hero whose character was inseparable from his racial identity. All of that, while important to his character, a man who lives in Harlem and is proud of being a Black man part of a Black community, reached too far at times. The show would sometimes cross the line from representing Luke Cage as the Black protagonist to idealizing Luke Cage as the representative of blackness. When a Black character becomes the stand-in for his whole race’s history and culture, then it is nothing but a form of blown-out tokenism. When Luke Cage recites Black history to the goons he’s beating up, when he’s waxing poetic about Black culture in the middle of an action-packed scene, he is less a character than he is a means for us to understand that the show is performing its blackness.

The “performance” is the tricky part, because how can one know if blackness is being genuinely presented as part of the character or aesthetic of the show or movie, or if it is just a shallow rendering? I think it’s something you just know when you see it. Just like one would assume most people can identify blackface when they see it (though this is clearly not always the case, even nowadays), blackness can similarly be a mask a writer or filmmaker slips onto a Black character to “prove” their racial identity rather than something that naturally sprouts from the conception of the character and their backstory, personality, etc.

It’s something you encounter in real life as well — the idea, even in jest, that someone may be “so Black” or “not Black enough,” as though there are some baseline cultural standards for blackness and the extent to which someone reaches or fails to reach them defines how believably they fit into a stereotypical version of their racial identity.

Cautious But Ready

When I see new shows and movies featuring Black heroes, I approach them with a cautious sense of excitement because even though I’m glad to see Black faces in major entertainment media, I know that it’s not enough. Blackness, like every other racial identity, is diverse. There is no singular Black experience, so when we see Black protagonists on TV or in the movies, we should demand that they be diverse, that they be well-written and that they be more than a cookie-cutter representation of someone’s idea of what it means to be Black. I hope Black Lightning — and Black Panther, as well as any other property that will feature Black heroes in the future — will achieve just that.

Black Lightning premiers on The CW on Tuesday January 16th, at 9pm EST. We’ll be live tweeting, using the tag #GimmieTheLight, and of course recapping the show. Check back here for more Black Lightning coverage as it comes out.

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