'Power' Is an Escape Fantasy for People of Color
The Starz drama has become the second-most-watched premium cable show—for good reason.
This summer, I found salvation on Sundays. No, not in church, but in Power. Within four seasons, the Starz series became the second-most watched premium cable show after HBO's Game of Thrones, and its viewers have created a kind of ceremony for watching and discussing. Every Sunday night, I've looked out for the steady ping of text messages from group chats with family and friends to dissect the latest episode. Viewing parties weren't uncommon, ranging from boozy informal gatherings at someone's house to 50-person assemblages where Power is projected on a widescreen outside.
Power's fourth season culminated Sunday with the emotional finale "You Can't Fix This," which was the most satisfying end possible after the murder of Ghost (Omari Hardwick) and Tasha St. Patrick's (Naturi Naughton) daughter Raina (Donshea Hopkins). With an average 8.7 million viewers per episode, it's easy to dismiss Power's success as just another "urban" show backed by the force of Black Twitter. But the show's real juice is that, for us TV-loving black folk who make up 75% of its viewers, Power is just as much an escape fantasy as Game of Thrones. Power presents an alternative America that's more pleasurable for people of color, where its diverse characters side step institutional racism and sexism for an hour so that we can get lost in the pure thrill of the ride.
In Power's New York City, race, class, and gender function less as social constructs that determine the characters' fates and more as footnotes that help move the overall story along. When we meet Ghost, he is living the American dream, having made his way from nothing to something, now sitting atop a powerful criminal syndicate and a burgeoning nightclub empire. Ghost and his high school sweetheart from Queens, Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), often refer to their youth as "the old days," a romantic euphemism for whatever working-class struggles they and their families endured. Their past is never fully verbalized, but it's the vehicle for their ambition. It's the chip on their shoulders used to explain why they both cling to their respective dreams so fiercely: Ghost's to make his business fully legitimate and Angela's to climb the ladder at the US Attorney's Office.
Ghost's and Angela's financial successes have made them as untouchable by the system as rich, white men are. This season, Ghost was arrested and charged with the murder of an Assistant U.S. Attorney. In any other scenario, it'd be nearly impossible to imagine a highly visible black man (with known ties to the criminal underground) not being made an example of and locked away for life. On Power, not only are the charges dropped due to prosecutorial misconduct, but the real murderer—fellow Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Sandoval (David Fumero)—is apprehended after his own team turns against him. A justice system that advocates for people of color who are wrongly accused and aggressively weeds out its bad apples? It's a welcome relief to the unchecked police corruption and brutality that destroy black and brown lives through state-sanctioned murder, false arrests, and incarceration.
The show's cast is more representative of the America we know (including actors of Nigerian, Afro-Puerto Rican, and Korean descent) which makes the fantasy world it creates all the more enticing. (There are many times I catch myself side-eyeing the lack of and type of roles available to people of color in Game of Thrones.) Can you imagine Angela, a Latina Assistant U.S. Attorney who was outed for having an affair with the man she was investigating, then being promoted to lead the criminal investigation unit in real life? I can't, but I enjoyed watching it.
If Power's alternative world could be called anything, "post-racial" might just about nail it down. In the season four episode, "It's Done," prodigal son Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.) is able to disarm the prejudices of a white Upper East Side woman his rogue friends have identified as a mark—simply by adjusting his outfit's preppiness. His clothes, an outward display of his social class, transcend his race and magically erase the threat of discrimination. This has been the real American dream for many black people in America for as long as we've been free—to be judged on the basis of one's character or merits, not skin color.
For its black viewers, Power is an escape from the constant assault on black lives in real life. The characters evade a system that normally persecutes minorities, and instead suffer the consequences of their own individual actions, much like rich, white men do. For the first time in this character's journey, Ghost must confront all of his life's choices that led to the death of his daughter. Which is way more entertaining to watch than Ghost sitting in a cell, as he and Tommy (Joseph Sikore) reunite with frenemy Kanan (50 Cent) to exact revenge in season five. Showrunner Courtney Kemp has described the series as "pure pleasure" for its audience. And she's right. Power has created a world where people of color are given the benefit of the doubt—and for us, that's fun to watch.
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