How ‘Black Lightning’ Unpacks the Complexities of Criminal Justice Corruption

As Jay Z’s “The Story of OJ” illustrated perfectly last year, it doesn’t matter how wealthy, educated or famous; if you’re African-American, you can never escape your blackness. Black Lightning has told this story from its very first episode, but the latest, “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion,” was more explicit with the message. Spoilers for Black Lightning episode 11 ahead.

jefferson pierce black lightning Jefferson reunites with his family. CW

Thunder and Black Lightning are doing their best to shut down The 100 operation as Green Light drugs take the city by storm. Their investigations into ASA and Tobias Whale backfire, and a corrupt officer plants drugs in the back of Jefferson’s car during school hours. The police march into the school, with no consideration for the students or Jefferson’s career, and take him out in handcuffs. When one officer cocks his gun and asks, “Are you resisting?” Jefferson is forced to put his hands up to not only protect his life, but prevent the kind of bogus felonies often associated with these situations like “reaching for a weapon.” It’s humiliating, especially since he was never charged with a crime and willingly offered to cooperate. He’s shoved in the back of a police car and taken to the station.

jefferson pilot black lightning The first time Jefferson is mistreated is in the very first episode. CW

Freeland’s most influential civil rights leader is roughed up, stripped down, searched, and handed a prison jumpsuit all before any charges are filed or a lawyer is present. Jefferson Pierce, superhero, principal, spouse to a neurologist with a nice home and strong support network, is still adversely affected by the systemic racism of Freeland’s criminal justice system.

While Jefferson’s modest affluence did not prevent mistreatment by the Freeland police, by the end of the episode, we do see the ways having money makes navigating the system easier. Lynn has been interviewing top-notch lawyers to defend her husband and the morally correct Inspector Henderson uncovers the corrupt officer to get Jefferson out of jail. A news station reports Jefferson has been exonerated for his crimes, something that does not happen for the thousands of wrongfully accused young men whose mugshots appear on the nightly news. For just about anyone else in Freeland, a drug charge like this probably would have gone differently.

black lightning jefferson pierce mug shot Jefferson's mug shot. CW

A young adult, one of Jefferson’s former students for example, could have sat in that cell for weeks, months, even years (at a jail such as New York’s Rikers Island ) all without ever being charged or speaking to a lawyer. If the young man came from a low-income family, like Kalief Browder, he would not have been able to make bail let alone afford legal representation to justly fight the case. In the end, such young men often are coerced to plead guilty to a crime they did not even commit to avoid going to trial and risking a felony charge that could result in a baffling number of years in prison. Pleading guilty and taking five years probation is the survivalist option.

black lightning jail jefferson pierce arrested The charges against Jefferson are dropped within the episode. CW

A 2015 study from Human Rights Watch that analyzed six counties in California found that “71-91 percent of misdemeanor and 77-91 percent of felony defendants who stayed in jail until they received their sentence were released before the earliest possible trial date.” These defendants plead guilty almost by default and lost their a chance at a life without a criminal record.

Black Lightning may be a show about a man with the capacity to change the world, but what makes the show so compelling is its commitment to remaining  rooted in reality. In “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion,” we never escape the cold, hard, truth of how the criminal justice system treats anyone who isn’t white.