‘Power’ Doesn’t Need Validation From the White Establishment—We Say It’s Fire
Despite industry snubs, the Starz series continues to be a ratings hit, thanks largely to Black viewers
I did lots of shushing during our Power viewing party on Saturday night. My sister, a few friends, and I decided to get together for the midseason finale; some of us like to yell at the TV when we’re not sure if our favorite characters are going to end up dead, in prison, or (gasp!) broke. But I didn’t want to miss a word — it’s the final season after all, and the episode was sure to feature a big whodunit cliffhanger that will leave us thirsting until the show returns in January for the final five episodes of the series. (Not much of a spoiler: It did.)
It can feel like every Black person I know watches Power. This time of year, Saturday night Power gatherings have become a regular thing with my friends and family. We plan watch parties (the show airs Sunday nights but is available to stream at midnight ET), we dissect each episode in group texts, and we get way too invested in every move the messy lead characters make. We create and share memes — so many memes. And as a fan base, we’re so attached to the original opening theme song, by R&B singer Joe and rapper and Power executive producer 50 Cent, that when a new version was featured in the season six premiere, we went off. (The show pivoted back to the original after that.)
Even in terms of media coverage, Power is not discussed as exhaustively as shows with lesser ratings
Yet, as big of a space as the show — a slick and intense Starz crime drama that follows drug dealer and nightclub owner James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) as he straddles the line between legit life and the criminal underworld — takes up in our pop culture lives, it’s not uncommon to hear someone, usually a white person, say “Power? Never heard of it.” Creator and showrunner Courtney Kemp admits not even all of her industry peers know it exists. That’s not for lack of viewership. In 2018, Power was the third most-watched show on-demand, behind Game of Thrones and This Is Us. (It was also reported in 2017 that 75% of the show’s audience was African American.) It’s no critical slouch either: The series has garnered an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet the NAACP Image Awards were the only awards show to acknowledge the series; despite the fact that the series consistently ranks as one of the most-watched programs on premium cable, it was shut out of all the major awards ceremonies. Even in terms of media coverage, Power is not discussed as exhaustively as shows with lesser ratings — I’m looking at you, Big Little Lies.
Kemp seems resigned to her show’s fate. “I thought we were doing something new and fresh and I was hoping that the Emmy voters would take notice, and then they didn’t,” she said to reporters in July. “You just accept it and move on.” 50 Cent was characteristically blunt, warning critics that they risked falling on the wrong side of entertainment history. “When we’re done with it, they’ll be looking around saying yea we fucked up again,” he said.
The ghettoizing of films and television created by Black people with predominantly Black audiences is nothing new, and people of color are generally underrepresented in the major awards shows. In 2016, Vulture reported that just 8.69% of acting nominees in Emmy history were people of color (Black performers made up the vast majority of those nominations). In 2019, there were just 26 people of color nominated for an Emmy in acting.
In 2017, filmmaker and Emmy-winner Ava DuVernay talked to USA Today about the conversations she was having with other Black creatives about not feeling seen by the big awards shows. “We talk about it all the time — what achievement means, what validation means, what authentication means,” she said. “Where does it have to come from for it to be deeply rooted in us? Is the community rallying around it enough? Is our own personal satisfaction with it enough? Are our elders being proud of us enough? Or do you need to have those statues in order to feel like you’ve actually done something that’s worthwhile?”
Kemp, for her part, seems to be satisfied with the love and the ratings. Addressing 11,000 fans gathered at Madison Square Garden for a premiere party celebrating Power’s final season, Kemp addressed her fans, “We pushed ourselves to give you the best show on TV. And even when the rest of the industry ignored us, you were there.”
Although we’re just a few months away from the final episodes of Power, Kemp is developing multiple spin-offs to begin airing after the series ends. In July, Kemp and 50 Cent revealed that the first spin-off would be a prequel starring Mary J. Blige, who is a devoted fan of the original series. It seems Kemp, her pocketbook, and we, her audience, are all coming out on top, no statues required.
I only made it through one season of Game of Thrones — sorry, world — but every GoT fan I know said they were disappointed by the show’s final season. Meanwhile, Power is going out on top, with one of its strongest seasons. My sister summed it up best at our viewing party: “Power’s actually giving fans the final season we want.”