Power Book III: Raising Kanan takes us back to the mean streets of 90s New York

A new season Power Book III: Raising Kananstreaming on Stan – nails the task at hand by framing its Queens gangster story as a kind of streetwise Greek tragedy, writes Travis Johnson.

The Power franchise just keeps on growing. Kicking off in 2014 with the eponymous crime series created by Courtney A. Kemp and with rap superstar Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, the franchise now encompasses four series totalling a whopping 14 seasons, with more on the way.

That can be daunting for a newcomer, but with season 3 of the critically acclaimed Power Book III: Raising Kanan now streaming, it’s a good time to get up to speed.

Power, which wrapped in 2020, followed the efforts of suave drug kingpin James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) to extricate himself from the criminal world and become a legitimate nightclub impresario—given the nature of crime dramas, it’s hardly a spoiler to say it didn’t turn out to be easy. Power Book II: Ghost picks up the narrative thread with the next generation, as Ghost’s son, Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.) tries to escape his father’s legacy, even as the lure of the narco trade proves too alluring. Power Book IV: Force takes the action to Chicago as Ghost’s former right-hand man, Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), tries to set up shop in the Windy City.

But Power Book III: Raising Kanan doesn’t require you to piledrive through all that (though you should)—it’s a prequel series, detailing the formative years of Ghost’s mentor/rival/frenemy Kanan Stark, played in the originally series by 50 Cent himself (who’s on voiceover narration duties for this one).
Instead of Jackson, we get young Mekai Curtis as Kanan, scion of the criminal Thomas family, learning hard lessons as his mother Raquel (Patina Miller) and uncles Marvin (London Brown) and Lou-Lou (Malcolm Mays) battle for control of the mean streets of South Jamaica, Queens in the 1990s (notably, 50 Cent was born and raised in South Jamaica). Cue drug deals, drive-bys, compromised loyalties, betrayals, brutal murders—you know the score.

Which means Raising Kanan is a villain origin story, exploring territory at least passingly similar to that trod by the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (boo!) and The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (I’ll allow it), only with more grit in its gut and blood on its knuckles. Showrunner Sascha Penn, who worked on the original Power and supplied the story for Creed II, presents us with a fascinating and authentic-seeming slice of fictional gangsta history—the characters may not be real, but the milieu they move in certainly feels it.

At the centre of it all is Curtis’s Kanan, one of the most perfect casting choices in recent memory. If you told me they used a digitally de-aged avatar of 50 Cent instead of a different and younger actor, I wouldn’t necessarily believe you—but there’d be a moment’s pause. As played by Curtis, the young Kanan is book-smart and a lock for a bright future beyond the streets—if he can resist the temptations thereof.

But Kanan’s already hardened by the time we meet him, in no small part thanks to his mother Raq, who certainly wants the best for her son, but also has no qualms about sending him down to the local playground with a sock full of batteries to get some payback for a beating (first episode of season one, by the way). It’s not hard to see how the sharp young guy of this series will transform into the brooding, ridiculously intimidating street monster that prowled through Power (50’s voiceover helps a lot in this regard).

Yet, while Kanan is the nominal star of the series, it’s Miller’s Raq that constantly demands our attention. A ruthless, scheming, Machiavellian crime lord, Raq sits at the centre of a web of shaky alliances, lies, and blackmail, pitting the various power players of the Queens underworld against each other. She’s not above lying to family if it serves her interests, either, as we learned at the end of the last season when corrupt NYPD detective Malcolm Howard (Omar Epps) was revealed to be Kanan’s biological father—a development sure to underpin much of the action in season 3.

Which doesn’t so much start with a bang as the aftereffects of one, as a gunshot Raq plots revenge for the coordinated attack that decimated her criminal empire at the climax of season 2. The attack was ordered by local mob boss Stefano Marchetti, who operates out of an aquarium shop and is wonderfully played by Tony Danza—perhaps finally answering the question, who’s the boss? Meanwhile, Kanan is on the outs with his family after learning about his parentage, Malcolm’s more honest partner, Shannon Burke (Shanley Caswell) is starting to put the pieces together re: his dirty dealings, and Raq has tumbled into bed with friendly rival drug kingpin Unique (Joey Bada$$).

Prequels are a tricky proposition, given the audience has a fair idea of where the narrative is going to end up. Raising Kanan nails the task at hand by framing its story as a kind of streetwise Greek tragedy, with Kanan’s transformation into a ruthless drug lord a grim inevitability rather than a foregone conclusion. We know he’ll become a monster, but we don’t know when—and that’s the hook that keeps us on the line.