Commentary: ‘Power’ created a black TV antihero. It wasn’t equipped to handle the consequences
“Power,” the Starz drama about drug dealer/nightclub owner James “Ghost” St. Patrick, concludes its six-season run on Sunday, ending a massive hit that enthralled millions of fans — predominantly black — with its violent saga of betrayal, revenge and family dysfunction.
With the resolution of the “Who Shot Ghost?” cliffhanger set to be revealed, Starz, executive producer Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and series creator Courtney Kemp are likely preparing to take a victory lap. Plans are already underway for several “Power” spinoffs, which network executives envision as a “‘Power’ Cinematic Universe” similar to the Marvel Comics superheroes franchise.
But before moving forward, the powers behind “Power” will hopefully take a closer look at their creation and its legacy.
While the series’ attempt to imagine a black antihero on the model of “The Sopranos’” Tony Soprano and “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White is laudable, the image of a black man engaging in a similar criminal enterprise with so little moral ambiguity has societal and cultural implications that it wouldn’t if the character were white. “Power” is set in an approximation of the “real world” that nonetheless trivializes the real-life consequences of the drug trade by leaning on melodramatic plots and outlandish luxuries. In trying to have it both ways, the series ultimately creates an unsatisfying sense that it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
This season kicked off with a gala premiere at Madison Square Garden, where Kemp told the capacity audience: “We pushed ourselves to give you the best show on TV. And even when the rest of the industry ignored us, you were there.”
Kemp, a former writer and producer on “The Good Wife,” and others associated with the show have long maintained that “Power” has not received the same respect or attention from the mainstream media as “prestige” dramas such as “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones.” And aside from recognition from the NAACP, the series has been snubbed on the awards circuit.
At its core, “Power” is a glossy drama built around two drug dealers who’ve gotten rich by pumping illegal narcotics into urban communities. Ghost (Omari Hardwick) and his white comrade, Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), started out as “corner boys” in Queens and blossomed into major dealers with a network of employees moving narcotics all over New York.
St. Patrick and his family enjoy the lavish fruits of his outlaw labors: For most of the show’s run, they resided in a tony high-rise penthouse and took pleasure in their wealthy lifestyle without remorse. Meanwhile, Egan dresses simply, lives in a barely furnished loft and drives a classic Mustang he’s had since his younger days.
Coupled with the series’ lack of attention to the havoc illegal drugs — and law enforcement’s “war” on said drugs — have wreaked on black and brown neighborhoods for decades, these choices, intentionally or not, are troubling. Even in the most ruthless of antihero dramas, we still amass an understanding of the victims of the protagonists’ actions, one that “Power” seems reluctant to provide. (Ghost has explained his hard beginnings by saying that he and Egan had little choice as struggling young men when it came to making a living, but the series mostly passes over the subject.)
Indeed, though “Power” falls into the antihero genre, it positions Ghost and Egan as heroes for the audience to root on without going to great lengths to question that allegiance — notably sidestepping the moral compromises that might have haunted St. Patrick and his family in favor of highlighting his seductive underworld. Some may read “Power” as a saga about a black man from difficult circumstances achieving the American Dream, but in prizing mayhem over meaning, the drama undercuts its own lofty ambitions.
As if to underscore the series’ lack of moral complexity, almost every major character — even those on the right side of the law — is corrupt to some degree, making the show a smorgasbord of bad behavior. What series like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” understood is the usefulness of contrast: White’s wife, Skyler, and son, Walt Jr., on ‘Breaking Bad,” like therapist Jennifer Melfi on “The Sopranos,” challenged the protagonists’ venality, making their mercenary tendencies more grimly compelling. The absence of that perspective in “Power” kneecaps the drama.
The issue isn’t the subject matter itself so much as “Power’s” clumsy treatment of it: Consider “Super Fly,” the 1972 blaxploitation classic about Priest, a suave drug dealer played by Ron O’Neal. In addition to being hugely popular, “Super Fly” was enormously controversial — many viewers, critics and others, felt Priest was glamorized. But O’Neal brought profound depth to the darkness of the role. Priest wanted out of the drug game, seeing it as a dead end. O’Neal’s performance and Curtis Mayfield’s eloquent lyrics delivered the real message of “Super Fly”: As Mayfield sings in “Pusherman,” “Been told I can’t be nothin’ else/Just a hustler in spite of myself/I know I can break it/This life just don’t make it.”
This might seem like a harsh comparison for a series that many of its fans regard simply as an operatic crime saga.
But even if “Power” successfully presented itself as purely escapist fare, it can’t avoid being read in the context of its contemporary setting and the broader societal issues it uses to create drama. It’s unfair — always has been — that works of popular art by and for black people have borne a larger burden of responsibility than those by and for whites. But being one of the few black dramas on television, alongside the likes of “Empire” and “The Chi,” inevitably places “Power” in the spotlight, exposing its creative weaknesses.
Among them is the series’ erratic storytelling. In one far-fetched arc from Season 3, a veteran Washington, D.C., police officer played by Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls”) turns out to be “Jukebox,” a notorious gang leader in her own right. But any benefits of the unexpected casting are lost because of the strain the twist places on the narrative — and viewers’ suspension of disbelief. There’s no explanation for the character’s double life, and she conveniently doesn’t have a patrol partner, which makes her a useful device but not exactly three-dimensional. (Several episodes later, Jukebox inexplicably shows up in New York to carry out a ransom plot against Ghost’s son, Tariq, played by Michael Rainey, Jr.)
This season found Tasha St. Patrick (Naturi Naughton), Ghost’s ex-wife, swiftly securing bureaucratic approval and backing to open a storefront daycare center, despite having no prior experience or credentials. Not long after the doors open, she recruits one of her clients, a stripper, to sell drugs at the club. It’s as if “Power” sets up salacious material to propel the plot but doesn’t want to be held accountable for doing so.
As Ghost edged closer to legitimacy in recent seasons, “Power” has turned much of its attention to tracing the evolution of Tariq from a well-behaved youth into a manipulative and treacherous adult following in his father’s footsteps.
Earlier this season, while he is attending prestigious Choate Rosemary Hall, a college preparatory school, he runs an operation out of his dorm room where he gets his roommate to sell drugs to other students. Tariq is confronted by another black student, Effie (Alix Lapri), who threatens to turn him in: “There are five black kids on this campus and you’re going to [ruin it] for all of us. ... What’s wrong with you? Could you be any more of a stereotype?”
But Tariq convinces her he can help her make more money than she earns working at the student bookstore. By the next episode, she has joined his operation. They also become romantically involved.
As with an earlier plotline, in which Ghost’s longtime flame, federal prosecutor Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), remains loyal to him even after learning of his illegal activities, “Power” quickly compromises characters in a position to change its protagonists’ patterns of bad behavior.
During its current season, at least, Ghost has come even closer to leaving his criminal past behind, with the focus turning to his political ambitions and a potential run for lieutenant governor. It’s reason to hope that Starz’s forthcoming spinoff, “Power Book II: Ghost” will build on the successes and learn from the failures of the original, finding the moral depth and nuance it’s often lacked. If the “Power” franchise is to live up to Kemp’s assertion that it should be considered alongside the best shows on TV, it’ll need to.
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