Power Book III: Raising Kanan
The Power universe has expanded, and if you’ve ever wondered what it was like growing up in South Jamaica, Queens in the early ’90s, episode one of the new prequel series Raising Kanan, “Back in the Day,” transports you back in time. I just so happen to be from the same exact neighborhood (right around the corner from the McDonalds on Sutphin and Linden Blvd. to be exact) and I grew up in the early ’90s, so the opening playground fight scene felt like I was watching the childhood experience of almost every New York kid who grew up in the hood.
Young Kanan (Mekai Curtis) gets into a fight in the park and is getting his ass whooped. In his defense, the fight was unfair. Two neighborhood kids who appear to be a little bit older than Kanan, and are much bigger in stature, essentially jump him while the other neighborhood kids cheer in excitement. To make matters worse, Kanan’s favorite cousin Jukebox (played by the talented Anika Noni Rose in Power season three and four) is being restrained and is unable to assist him, forcing her to break NYC ’90s playground rule No. 1: When one family member fights, everyone fights.
Embarrassed by the beatdown, Kanan runs home crying where he’s found by his young hood momma, who also happens to be a drug kingpin. Played by Broadway award-winning actress Patina Miller, Kanan’s mother Raquel Thomas, also affectionately called Raq, is exactly who I imagine Queens rapper LL Cool J was thinking about when he said he needed a “round-the-way-girl.” Like most moms, Raquel shows concern, but she does so in the most South Jamaica way possible: She makes him fight again. Not only does Raquel casually bring Kanan back to the park to confront the boys who jumped him, she makes sure he has a homemade weapon, batteries stuffed in a sock. (No lie, I witnessed this exact scene playout in middle school, but with girls fighting!) With his mother watching from afar making sure he doesn’t back down, Kanan gets his revenge and redeems his reputation in the park.
Raquel’s complex approach to mothering is depicted throughout episode one. It is evident that she loves her son, and she also makes it clear she wants a better life for him. She accompanies her son to school to meet with the principal to discuss Kanan’s promising future. Like the other male characters in the Power universe, James and Tariq St. Patrick, Kanan is smart — book smart. But also like the St. Patricks, he chooses the streets.
A lot of this premiere episode is spent introducing viewers to the key people in Kanan’s life: His favorite cousin Jukebox; Davina, the girl he is crushing on; Shawn “Famous” Figueroa, his Puerto Rican best friend; his uncles Lou Lou and Marvin; and Unique, the biggest drug dealer on the southside/his mother’s competition, to name a few. The development of the characters is heightened by the narration of 50 Cent, who plays an older Kanan. We all know how Kanan’s life ended, so 50 doesn’t make an onscreen appearance in the series. However, hearing his voice makes the prequel feel both authentic and familiar.
Showrunner and former Power writer Sascha Penn also makes room for some jaw-dropping, action-filled scenes. Raquel shows how vicious she really can be when she arranges for the dog of a rude-ass publicist she encountered to die by microwave. There’s also a drive-by shooting at the local diner meant to warn Raquel and her brothers, and a murder at the end of the episode (more on that later). Thus far, Raising Kanan has all of the plot features of Power and Power Book II — drugs, guns, shootouts, and romance — but yet the storyline doesn’t feel repetitive.
It’s clear the romance in the series will rely on the “good girl wants bad guy” trope. However, when it comes to Raq, the writers subvert viewers expectations. She flirts with Symphony Bosket, the attractive bartender with one hell of a name, at Hugo Sanchez’s bar. Raq is the bad girl, i.e., the drug dealer, while Symphony is an Urban Planning master’s student. Nice guy with his head on his shoulders — he probably never even held a gun before. At this point, the remaining love interests — Davina and Kanan, Davina and Buck Twenty, and Lou Lou and Jessica (Famous’ sister) — maintain a much more familiar good girl/bad guy narrative, so it’ll be interesting to see how these love stories evolve, or don’t, as the season progresses.
The premiere episode presents the Thomas family as more unified and loving than the other families in the Power universe, the St. Patricks and the Tejadas. While at the local diner, prior to the shootout, they enjoy a meal together and exchange laughs. The energy feels way less tense than other Power episodes. While eating dinner, the family praises Jukebox for her vocal performance in choir rehearsal earlier in the day. Raquel also brags about the opportunity Kanan has received to attend a brand new specialized high school. Jukebox reveals she too was approached by the principal, but her outlandish father, uncle Marvin, shut the idea down. At the table, he forgets the comment he made to Jukebox and responds by joking about it. Although done very subtly here, the show writers are comparing the parenting styles of Raquel and Marvin, and the desires they have for their kids.
With no real intentions of leaving his friends and starting all over at a new school, the varying opinions about the specialized (not to mention predominantly white) million dollar high school, combined with the recent drive-by, make Kanan more adamant about not attending Stuyvesant. He tries to convince his mother he is more knowledgeable about her business than she thinks he is. Concerned about the safety of his mother and his future, he questions what would happen to him if she were to get murdered. Miller and Curtis pull at viewers’ heartstrings as they portray a loving, close relationship between a single mother and her only son. Despite his vulnerability and pleas to protect his mother, Raquel continues to protect her son by not welcoming him into the family business. However, Kanan disregards her wishes by intentionally failing his entrance exam.
Raquel has already established herself as one of the toughest women in the Power universe. (Monet Tejada is pretty damn tough. I’m not sure who would win in a fight.) During her conversation with her competition Unique, played by rapper/actor Joey Badda$$, Raquel holds her own, proving she is not intimidated by the male-dominated drug game. By the end of the conversation it’s Raquel who’s negotiated the terms of who got what set of blocks: 140th street to 143rd street for Unique, and for Raq, 144th street to Sutphin Blvd. However, she doesn’t share this information with her brothers or her son, so when Kanan gets news from D Wiz, one of his hot-headed down-for-whatever friends, that Unique’s men was on “his mom’s corner… 140th street,” he decides to take matters into his own hands under the guise of protecting Raquel.
Kanan and D Wiz mistakenly attack Unique’s corner and end up killing Buck Twenty, one of Unique’s men and Davina’s boyfriend. The scene slowly dramatizes Kanan’s first murder (though the two are not sure whose bullet did the damage). From the moment they turn the corner he wears his emotions on his face, which shifts from aggressive and angry to regret and remorse. The teenagers stand over Buck Twenty’s almost-lifeless body in shock, leaving more than enough time for him to grab Kanan by the neck. After realizing it was Buck Twenty who they murdered, it makes me wonder about the real motive: protection of his mom, or jealousy?
Kanan’s decision ultimately puts the family in jeopardy and puts a temporary strain on his relationship with his mother. She puts her identity as a mother before her identity as a drug kingpin and grounds Kanan. Those identities are forced to merge quickly, however, when she has to protect Kanan from being killed by Unique’s crew and questioned by the police.
The episode comes full circle when Raq and Unique return to their designated meet-up location to discuss business, but this time, because of Kanan’s actions, she has no power to negotiate or force Unique to compromise — the ball is in his court. He takes all of the blocks and even questions her ability to be a mother and a drug dealer. By the end of the episode she makes a choice that feels right for both her and Kanan.
• I live for the fashion in the episode. The stylist clearly understood the assignment, from the 40 belows to the Gazelle glasses, leather bomber jackets, door-knocker earrings, and nameplate necklaces. I look forward to seeing how fashion plays a part in the remainder of the series.
• Oh, also: the hairstyles!!!!
• I bet Kanan is going to use Buck Twenty’s death to get closer to Davina — sucker-ass move. I wonder if she will ever find out he killed her boyfriend.