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On ‘Black Lightning,’ a complex face-off between characters who draw from MLK and Marcus Garvey

For Black History Month, the CW’s superhero series introduced Wayne Brady’s Gravedigger, a new foe who challenges Jefferson Pierce’s MLK-like philosophy.

On ‘Black Lightning,’ a complex face-off between characters who draw from MLK and Marcus Garvey
(Left to right) Behind the scenes with Nafessa Williams, Cress Williams, and China Anne McClain. [Photo: Jace Downs/The CW]

Last night’s episode of the CW’s Black Lightning dug deep for Black History Month with an introduction to Wayne Brady as Tyson “Gravedigger” Sykes.  

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Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil’s adaptation of the DC Comics tale of an ex-Olympian who returns to his impoverished hometown and becomes Black Lightning—an academic by day and crime fighter by night—has always drawn from the intersection of politics, black identity, and black culture for storylines. The latest episode expanded on that by exploring a philosophy that channeled Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist who wanted to create a sovereign utopia for black people.

Gravedigger is the new adversary of Jefferson Pierce (aka Black Lightning, played by Cress Williams). Pierce, who is more like Dr Martin Luther King Jr., prefers nonviolence and a peacefully integrated coexistence between humans and “metahumans” (i.e., people with superpowers). Ideally, Pierce would like for all metahumans to protect humans from whatever threats lurk in his hometown of Freeland, USA. (Anyone who watches the show knows that will never happen.) 

Wayne Brady as Gravedigger. [Photo: Annette Brown/The CW]
Gravedigger’s approach is more Garvian, but with a lot more aggression. Gravedigger is a super soldier who defected to the fictional European nation of Markovia instead of returning to a segregated America after WWII. His goal is to create a sovereign land for metahumans within Markovia, but Markovia is occupying Freeland and has been terrorizing its citizens all season long. Gravedigger’s return to Freeland is met with resistance from the corrupt government organization A.S.A. and Black Lightning, who are at war with the Markovians. But it adds another layer to the battle for Freeland’s soul. 

It’s a storytelling device that’s similar to Marvel’s movie adaptation of Black Panther, which pits Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) against each other in a way that mirrored the duality of Malcolm X and MLK’s respective ideologies. These approaches are more relevant than ever, given how polarized our real-life political climate is in the U.S.

In the DC Comics Universe, Gravedigger is the codename used for two super soldiers in different storylines. One debuted in Men of War (1977) and the other (Sykes) was introduced in Checkmate #25 Vol. 2 (2008). Neither character is as villainous as the TV show character is shaping up to be, and Wayne Brady is known for being congenial, so it’s going to be interesting to see where the Emmy-winning, Grammy-nominated renaissance man goes with this recurring role as he reminds us, once again, not to let the singing, dancing, and jovial hosting gigs fool us.  

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