Project Power is a sporadically fun movie with more heart than any kind of narrative drive. The film also has some interesting and timely ideas. But like most superhero movies it doesn’t care about them beyond mentioning them.
The story takes place in New Orleans, as a person once said, “lives in the imagination of the world.” Sadly, Henry Joost and his co-director Ariel Schulman, don’t seem that enamored with the great city. Watching Project Power, I couldn’t help but feel as if the story could have taken place anywhere.
Joost and Schulman try to evoke the feeling of New Orleans but never quite capture the strange mercurial rhythms of the city. Worse, the script by Matt Tomlin which deals with a secret organization distributing a new drug throughout New Orleans, a drug that gives people superpowers, seems to try and tie the unrest and bitterness left over from the levees breaking and the apathy of U.S. government with the city’s intransigence to the new crisis. But Tomlin never succeeds in doing more than mentioning the ideas.
A detective, Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) tells his superior, Captain Crane (Courtney B. Vance) about how angry it makes him that the good people of the city are left to once again fend for themselves, but it’s never brought up again. Seeing as Joost and Schulman have no interest in New Orleans beyond just a prop, we never get a sense of the community or the people who live there outside of a few key scenes, so the idea never starts to gel.
Thankfully, we have Robin (Dominique Fishback). A young Black teenager and street dealer of the drug merely trying to get by. Fishback is a joy to behold. She pulls off a naturalized performance without a hint of artificiality. She’s delightful to listen to as well as Robin is also an aspiring rapper.
Project Power is at its best when it’s not behaving like every other superhero movie. At one point early on Robin is sitting in class texting on her phone. Her teacher, a white man, tries to embarrass her in front of the class. He asks her what she wants to be when she grows up and she answers a rapper. The teacher then tells her that if she gets up and rap, she’ll get a “C” for the class.
Robin gets up and shocks the teacher, spitting bars and calling out his racist behavior, as the class cheers her on. But then the scene abruptly cuts back to Robin sitting down and we realize it was all in her head. Joost and Schulman, along with their cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, does a wonderful job switching styles between what happens in Robin’s head and reality.
Simmonds’ camera work, when Joost and Schulman allow him to, brings the movie a sort of lyrical tone. Mixed with the hip-hop soundtrack. Scenes like the one where Art (Jamie Foxx) attempts to track down Newt (Colson Baker). Newt pops one of the Power drugs and becomes essentially the human torch. The special effects combined with the set design of the apartment complex, covered in moss and graffiti, pop in a way that is rare for Netflix movies.
The way the camera whips around as Foxx’s Art jumps from floor to floor chased by Newt and the way Joost and Schulman allow the denizens to interact with the fight, fleshes out the world, and makes it seem bigger, if only for a few minutes. But for those few minutes Project Power feels like something special and unique.
Art, Frank, and Robin soon join forces to find the seemingly sinister Dr. Gardner (Amy Landecker). She has kidnapped Art’s daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson). Tracy, it is later revealed, is the source for which Gardner is using to create the “Power” drug.
In one of the few instances where Tomlin’s script follows through with an idea, we learn that Art was a guinea pig for the drug. Earlier in the classroom where Robin dreamed of putting her teacher in place, the class was learning about Fetal alcohol syndrome. Tracy seems to have suffered that, only instead of alcohol poisoning, she was given an array of powers.
It is a rare occurrence, as for the most part, Tomlin’s script drops an idea just as it is about to get interesting. Or worse, have a character regurgitate some facts that feel forced and out of place. One scene has Gardner giving a history lesson to Art about Henrietta Lacks, the now infamous Black woman whose genes were stolen from her by white medical officers and are the foundation of most of our modern medical knowledge.
That last sentence by the way is almost verbatim, the line of dialogue delivered by Gardner. As the movie unfolds it becomes pretty obvious that Project Power is at the very least inspired by what happened to Henrietta Lacks. Even right down to a team of scientists kidnapping a young Black girl to help fund and explore a whole new era of human genetics.
But the line seems more to try and assure us the audience that the writer has read the popular book about Henrietta’s life as opposed to trusting us to come to those conclusions ourselves. Not to mention, Art, who is a Major, an ex-Marine is surely aware of who Henrietta is and doesn’t need to be told about her. The scene exists purely to give us information in a clumsy manner.
Tomlin’s script is riddled with these issues. Project Power starts strong but begins to lose its way. The scene with Newt and Art, the scene with Robin in class, and another one involving Frank as he chases a bank robber who has taken a Power drug that allows him to be a chameleon are clever and fun. I liked how it seemed like Joost and Schulman were slowly beginning to show us the world they were building.
Frank as a character is woefully underwritten. Gordon-Levitt tries but he’s never quite able to overcome the weak script and comes off as trite and oftentimes kind of bland. Not to mention with the recent rise of awareness of how systemically corrupt police officers are, it feels weird to have the one good cop be a white man, who seems to be both using the drug and trying to eradicate it.
The movie does give us a pretty awesome spectacle of a showdown with Foxx’s Art taking on an army of Gardner’s men, all of whom are armed and on the “Power” drug. Simmonds’s camera once again comes alive and Joost and Schulman use every tool on their toolkit to make the scene alive with color and energy.
These moments stand out so much because in between these moments Joost and Schulman pack a myriad of bland scenes. The speakeasy scene for example, while a fantastic set design, is shot and edited in such a way that robs the scene of any urgency and tension.
I loved how Joost and Schulman visualized and showed us the drug interacting and working on a genetic level. Those moments have a strange breathtaking quality to them. But so much of the movie suffers from a bland flatness, that when the movie does come alive it seems as if different directors have taken over.
The overarching whiteness of Project Power is the last straw of what undermines much of the movie. Not the whiteness in front of the camera, but the whiteness behind the camera. Adding insult to injury, neither the writer, the directors, or most of the actors are from New Orleans.
Listen to how Gordon-Levitt delivers his speech about the bitterness in the district that still lingers from the levees breaking. The anger sounds hollow and performative, it doesn’t quite ring true. It should be noted, however, that Simmonds at least understands how to light his Black actors.
But the whiteness behind the camera becomes all too evident when Robin and Art talk about how the system of America is eating them alive. Art even tells Robin that “The system is designed to swallow you whole.” His advice to beat the system is to be the best she can be at one thing and then own it. Which, fine, but Art is right, the system is designed to swallow Black girls like Robin whole. But it is also designed to do so no matter how good she is at something. The advice rings false as if Tomlin’s script knows the words but doesn’t quite understand them.
I also can’t help but wonder if the film had a Black director or a Black writer if maybe Tracy would have had a bigger role as opposed to the very hollow role of damsel in distress. After all, if the film was even half-serious about its Henrietta Lacks comparison wouldn’t it make sense to, I don’t know, spend some time with the movie’s own Henrietta Lacks? She’s reduced to merely screaming “Daddy,” and cowering in fear. A shame as what little screen time Simpson has, she knocks it out of the park.
Foxx and Fishback do a remarkable job, and have lovely chemistry and play off each other well. They are so good that whenever we cut away to Gordon-Levitt’s Frank I found myself sighing exasperation. Fishback is such a presence that I found myself smiling whenever she was allowed to just go off on someone or when she would freestyle some lyrics. She is a refreshing talent and surely if she can hold her own against Foxx, she can hold her own against most other actors.
Project Power is deeply flawed but not so much that I hated it. Despite my issues and the film’s tendency to lag from time to time, I enjoyed myself. If only because of Fishback and Foxx’s repertoire. I liked how the world wasn’t at stake, which was nice. Though I could have done without all the scenes of Frank the white cop confused as to why Robin and Art didn’t trust a white cop.
Still, Joost and Schulman, at times, unabashedly reminded me how visually bland so many big-budget superhero movies are. In these moments Project Power felt alive in a way that shows how cinema can grab you and hold onto you like the remnants of a dream. I just wished it would have had the guts to commit to those moments.