Advertisement
Television

Showrunner Courtney A. Kemp: ‘Power’ fought a racist double standard — and won

“Power” final season
Omari Hardwick as James “Ghost” St. Patrick, with Lela Loren as Angela Valdes, in Starz’s “Power.”
(Paul Schiraldi / Starz)

When Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Mark Canton and I first started talking about “Power,” it was based on a simple idea — we wanted to build a music-driven, fast-paced drama series with an African American lead. He would be strong, professional, decisive and deadly. Subversively, a kind of black James Bond.

I wanted to ask a question: What did it mean to be a black man in America after Obama was elected? Years later, given what’s happening in this country, it’s hard to remember what that was like — the feeling of hope, the feeling of forward momentum we had as a race with Obama in office. But the central question was: What would it mean if you’d been raised with the idea that a black man could never be president, to find out that was a lie?

And so I created James St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a brilliant, self-educated man with no jump shot and no mixtape, a man who believed that his only way out of the hood was to sell the very substances that destroy it.

Advertisement

The construction of this character — one part Jamie, the love-struck innocent still attached to the dream of high-school flame Angela Valdes (Lela Loren); one part James St. Patrick, legit entrepreneur; and one part Ghost, homicidal drug kingpin — was always predicated upon the idea that he was lying to himself. James always believed that he was the core identity, in control of it all. But over the seasons, we showed the audience that Ghost was always pulling James back to the streets, back to violence — that Ghost was the dominant force. Ghost was a hero for the post-Obama era, a black man with the money and the freedom to tell his own story. For better or for worse.

The African American audience responded: In the modern age of television storytelling, we are no longer burdened with the requirement to make polemical characters, to prove to white people that we are good too.

To hell with that.

“Power” final season
Michael Rainey Jr. as St. Patrick’s son, Tariq, in “Power.”
(Myles Aronowitz/Starz)

Advertisement

The revolution is to be able to create characters of color — women characters, LGBTQ characters — that make the same bad or good decisions that straight white male characters have been making all along. A call to do anything other than that is, sadly, internalized racism: a historical response to institutionalized prejudice earmarked by a desire to prove to white audiences, through fiction, that black people are human, are good and are worthy of rights. A prohibition against criminal black characters comes from the fear that white people will think that’s all that we are. But to me, the victory is not “good” or “holy” or somehow “better.” The goal is complex, complicated and therefore equal.

I said recently that the fact that I am a black woman in America, I wrote what I wanted to write and it was on television for others to see — is a revolution in itself. That was impossible within my mother’s lifetime. Within, frankly, my own lifetime. The characters on “Power” are all flawed, and as anyone who watches the show can tell you, the good die young. Sometimes, in the case of Ghost’s teenage daughter Raina, very young. But the series is about consequences for their actions. The characters always cause their own deaths, one way or another. Everyone has a choice. Holly can run and keep running, instead of coming back to Tommy. Angela can go into witness protection and never see Ghost again. Greg could have just stopped investigating, let Angela go, and not pursued Ghost. Raina could have told Tasha, when she asked, what was going on with Tariq.

Safia Dirie, one of our writers for most of the run, one day turned to me and said, “Is ‘Power’ a tragedy or a morality play?” and we discussed it at length. I decided it was a mix of both. When people make immoral decisions in our show, they are rewarded with tragedy. It’s funny, the idea that “Power” doesn’t show the devastation of drugs on our community. “Power” shows the devastation that the game causes to your life — Ghost lost friends, ran scared, lost his first love. Lost his daughter. All to the game. All because he wouldn’t walk away. All because he ultimately wouldn’t break good. And as we’ve seen, by the time he really committed to the legit life, it was too late. At the end of the series, we started to pivot Ghost into politics, to bring the Obama story back into view as Ghost began to realize his dream to be “more.” His internal demons grew as he reached the five-yard line. Four yard-line. Three yards … he could taste the end zone … but he started to celebrate a little early. We all know what happens then.

While Ghost’s classic hero’s journey is the center of the show, I think the success of the series lies in the reality of the world we created. Our core audience knows the Ghosts, Tommys and Kanans of the world. Women say to me all the time, “I am Tasha” or, “I’ve been LaKeisha.” I can tell you Angela is based on some of my own mistakes.

“Power final season
La La Anthony as LaKeisha Grant in “Power” on Starz.
(Starz)

It’s so real for some viewers, in fact, that people sometimes mix fact with fiction. Stars of the show have been threatened with assault, sexual assault and even received death threats over the choices their fictional characters have made. Our audience is passionate — sometimes a little too much so, and the FBI gets involved — but it does offer proof that we created something visceral, on-the-pulse and culturally relevant for our age. We proved that there was money to be made in making television with women, people of color and LGBTQ folks on and behind the camera, and as a result, we were at the forefront of a golden age of television aimed at what Starz called “underserved audiences.”

It turns out, though, that everyone enjoys series with diverse casts. Our largest growing audience on “Power” last year was young white women aged 18 to 34. When you make something cool, relevant and fun, everybody enjoys it. Not because it’s a polemic, or making a point about urban blight and the responsibility of the black man to address it, but because people ultimately want to be entertained. They had a hard day at work and they just want to take off their shoes and relax.

For me, the most important legacy of “Power” is how many women, people of color, and LGBT people we have been able to hire behind the scenes, both above and below the line. From writers, directors and producers to set PAs, we’ve been able to create a truly diverse environment for people to learn, grow and create careers in entertainment. Both 50 and I have been committed to creating jobs for people who wouldn’t have had those opportunities in the recent past.

Advertisement

My greatest pleasure is promoting people who have worked hard and who wouldn’t have had a shot in another system. I love to teach and to reward effort. These kids who stand in the snow and the rain while “Power” shoots in the winter in New York, those are people whose achievements I celebrate with the success of the show. The 10 million viewers kept these people working. That’s the win. Multiple writers from “Power” have gone on to create and run their own series and hire their own diverse writers’ rooms and crews. And so the mission multiplies. That’s the true success of the show and something that means more to me than anything. In fact, I think we created a job this week in giving a staff writer from this paper something to attack.

“Power” is the great love of my life, and as Ghost and Angela can tell you, it’s hard to let go. The end of Book 1 of the series will now lead to multiple spinoffs, all connected to crime of different levels, from Timberland boots on concrete to wingtips on marble. Do we glamorize it? I don’t think so. There are consequences to living a life in the game, and we show them in every episode. But that’s why the show is called “Power.” It came from the idea that we are all powerless — that each of us feels that we can control our destiny, but that’s an illusion. For Ghost, he was just about to grab the ring when he was brought down by his hubris. For me, I just want to keep making television that people enjoy. And like David Chase, Vince Gilligan, Dick Wolf or anyone on the path in front of me, I want to do it freely, without being asked to take on a burden these men are not.

The more we push for equality as storytellers, as creators and filmmakers, the more strides we will make. The more creative freedom we achieve, the more the audience wins. And I’m here for that.

Courtney A. Kemp is creator and showrunner of Starz’s “Power,” which will air its series finale Feb. 9. Kemp’s “Power” cinematic universe will continue with the first of several spinoff series, “Power Book II: Ghost,” set to debut later this year.


Newsletter
Get our daily Entertainment newsletter

Get the day's top stories on Hollywood, film, television, music, arts, culture and more.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Advertisement