It was recently announced that Starz’s hit crime drama Power has been renewed for a third season, following the news that the season two premiere scored a stellar 1.43 million viewers in live ratings, the largest ratings the premium cable network has seen for original programming. That number rose to 3.62 million in the live-plus-same-day ratings.
The show is about James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a powerful New York City drug dealer whose public face is as the owner of a posh Manhattan nightspot. As Ghost juggles his double professional life of nightclub czar and drug kingpin, he’s also in the middle of two women: his sexy and savvy wife-and-accomplice, Tasha, and Angela Valdes, Ghost’s ex-flame and current mistress (who also happens to be a federal narcotics agent). Of course, there’s a bevy of supporting characters and interweaving storylines involving crime, betrayal, retribution, and greed. The show can be contrived and cliché, but it’s very entertaining thanks to well-paced episodes, gorgeously shot set pieces (executive producer and recurring cast member 50 Cent deserves credit for the high production values) and a strong cast. They keep things moving fast enough for you to not become too preoccupied with Power’s flaws.
Oh—and they also have a lot of sex on this show.
That’s not to suggest that T&A makes a mediocre show watchable. But it’s worth noting that this is a show with a predominantly black and Latino cast that isn’t interested in downplaying the sexuality of those characters. Quite the contrary, Power embraces its sexiness—the show features almost a sex scene per episode—relevance be damned. And black sexuality being featured prominently at all is, sad though it may seem, a breakthrough for mainstream American television and film, which makes the passionate, sweaty, intense sex scenes on Power all the more, well, powerful.
For decades, American audiences have seen virtually every facet of white sexuality play out on the big and small screen. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, steamy suspense films were extremely popular, with movies like Body Heat, Fatal Attraction, and Basic Instinct vaulting actors like Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Sharon Stone onto the A-List. The erotic drama 9 ½ Weeks helped cement Mickey Rourke’s late ‘80s stardom, and Demi Moore became one of the biggest actresses of the ‘90s after a series of provocative roles in films like Indecent Proposal and Disclosure. During that stretch, there wasn’t any easy black counterpart to these very adult suspense films. Spike Lee’s acclaimed debut She’s Gotta Have It told the story of a sexually liberated single young woman in mid-80s Harlem, but was largely unseen by mainstream audiences. Lee’s propensity for explicit love scenes has been obvious throughout his career, but it can often be presented in a context that’s detached (Do the Right Thing) and exploitative (She Hate Me.) Boomerang dealt with single black professionals and their romantic troubles; but it was a comedy that featured R-rated language as opposed to heavy love scenes. Even as black relationships took center stage in late ‘90s films like Love & Basketball and The Best Man, sex was presented in the “safest” context possible.
In 2000, then-upstart studio Rainforest Films released Trois, the story of a married couple who invite another woman into their bedroom. Produced by a black studio, with a black director and a black cast, the movie became a cult favorite and spawned two straight-to-DVD sequels. But there was still little in the mainstream; the black erotic thriller remained niche or invisible.
Television has been a bit more forward-thinking than feature films as it pertains to interracial relationships, but so many of the most prominent black television shows of the last 25 years have been sitcoms. Wisecracking black couples with playful sexual innuendo became fairly routine, but as the hour-long drama took over American television in the 2000s, black shows all but disappeared. So while audiences watched the weekly womanizing of Tony Soprano and Don Draper, there was no black dramatic show featuring African-American adults engaging in romantic and sexual entanglements. Based on author Zane’s popular erotic books, Zane’s Sex Chronicles premiered on Cinemax in 2008, but was more softcore fodder than seriously-viewed television series. As pay cable took serious drama to cinematic heights, black characters were relegated to the sidelines—and with them, black relationships and black sexuality.
It’s not hard to understand why some filmmakers and audiences would prefer that black sex stay off the screen. On the one hand, black sexuality has often been presented in unhealthy ways—hypersexual images of black people are an old and constant part of the dehumanization of black people. The big black buck and the voluptuous black harlot are caricatures that African-Americans have been burdened with consistently; but there is also a tendency to present black people as nearly asexual in response to those images. The idea that a black person can’t be sexualized in any context only further dehumanizes black people and marginalizes black sexuality. Because the reluctance to feature black sex on screen isn’t about presenting “safe” images for black audiences—it’s also rooted in the desire to present white audiences with “comfortable” depictions of black people.
In 2005, during press runs for his hit romantic comedy Hitch, Will Smith spoke frankly about mainstream movie studios’ apprehension towards interracial relationships on the big screen—but he made sure to point out that the problem was bigger than just interracial pairings. "There's sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don't want to see it," he told UK's Birmingham Post at the time. "Sony spent something like $50 million dollars making this movie and the studio thought that those situations would be tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up—that will work around the world, but it's a problem in the US."
Smith was correct in calling out Hollywood’s disinclination regarding black male leads paired with white female leads in romantic or sexual scenarios, but he also acknowledged that there is a taboo surrounding black love scenes altogether. And it stands to reason that if Hollywood is afraid of black love, it’s just as scared of black sex.
Too often, black sex is presented in mainstream films and on television in ways that involve brutality and victimization. Acclaimed films like 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained feature agonizing rape and torture scenes. Black female bodies being broken at the hands of barbaric white aggressors is a part of the reality of slavery, but that image can become definitive when it dominates mainstream film. Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning performance in the 2001 film Monster’s Ball drew criticism for her character’s torrid affair with an outspoken racist—and at the center of the movie was an infamous sex scene involving Berry and co-star Billy Bob Thornton as the bigoted jailer who oversaw the execution of Berry’s husband on death row. The scene was just another positioning of black female sexuality as an extension of black pain, and that sexuality was reduced to a plot device that helped “cure” the racist of his hateful nature. But it’s rare to see black sexuality that isn’t presented in a harrowing fashion. Mainstream Hollywood seems to feel that sex featuring black characters isn’t supposed to be sexy.
With Power on premium cable, it offers TV-MA content that skews along the lines of an R-rated movie. The attractive cast is working within storylines that routinely revolve around sex and violence, so gunplay and foreplay are never too far from the show’s priorities. But black sexuality isn’t presented in a way that’s distorted or ugly—no matter how gratuitous those sex scenes on Power may be. And shows like Being Mary Jane, Survivor’s Remorse, Orange Is the New Black, House of Lies and network shows like ABC’s Scandal and FOX’s Empire have also elected to not downplay the sexuality of their characters for the sake of presenting chaste, asexual blackness to American audiences. In the current television landscape full of shows dedicated to antiheroes and tortured souls, it wouldn’t make any sense. And with more black viewers craving more black content, it’s important to present well-rounded, non-sanitized depictions of blackness. Our characters can be as complex, conflicted, messy and sexy as they need to be.
Because black and sexy is always a good thing.