Courtney Kemp is quietly making history. She's the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of the Starz original series Power, which hit a network-record 2.26 million viewers in its season three debut. On the surface, the show is a crime drama starring James St. Patrick a.k.a. Ghost (Omari Hardwick), a New York City drug dealer turned nightclub owner struggling to find a happy medium within his double life. But dig a bit deeper, and Power is a show about everyday human relationships and the morals that underlie them.
Before Kemp teamed up with rapper and entrepreneur Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson to create Power, she was a journalist writing at GQ, and then a television writer for The Bernie Mac Show. Her big break came from working with Michelle and Robert King as a writer and producer on the The Good Wife from 2010 until 2012. She counts the married couple and creative partners as her mentors.
Currently the only black woman showrunner of a premium cable series, Kemp feels strongly that your race or sex should not dictate which stories you are permitted to tell. For her, that's creatively limiting.
"I would never ever in a million years say that any person because of their specific gender or race cannot write a character that does not share that," she told me. "I think that’s offensive, I think that’s anti-writing. We are interpreters, we are reporters, we are witnesses, that’s what we are. And so, that is just not acceptable that that kind of identity politics comes up with writing drama."
We talked with Courtney Kemp about developing female characters, sex scenes, and the writing process.
Power is focused on male characters like Ghost and Tommy, but the complex, resilient female characters shine, too. They keep the men in check. Did you learn some of this from your time as a writer on The Good Wife, a show known for strong female characters?
I always struggle with questions like this one because it’s not like I have to work differently to write about a person who is like me. I’m a woman. On my show, I write about men that I know or the men that I have been around. I think it’s a non-issue, really, because a character should be comprehensible by the audience.
The audience should be able to understand what the character is doing or why they are doing it even if they don’t agree with it. You may not agree with murder, but when Ghost killed Rolla, you understand why he did it, right? The essence of characters is really about psychology and about the audience’s ability to relate to the character. So, I don’t ever think of it as, this is how you build a female character, or this is how you build a male character. I don’t think men and women are that different.
The women on the show have confidants who are women. Angela has her sister, Paz. Tasha has her best friend LaKeisha. I think sometimes on TV when you watch shows with women, specifically women of color, it's so unrealistic because they don’t always have friends. Was it intentional for you to create these kind of background characters that serve as a support system for the women on Power?
Actually, very early in the development process when we came up with Paz, I got a little of a pushback from the network about why we need this character. I told them that’s how women are in the world, they have other people to talk to. I said the female audience won’t understand the character if they don’t see her with her friends. We had actually built in a friend character, but there is a woman on my creative team, Gabriela Uribe, and she has two older sisters and talked a little bit about those relationships. I thought that’s more what we need for Angela. Someone who is actually going to tell her when she’s full of shit. You have those friends who are like, hey girl, whatever you say is great and then you have those friends like, that was dumb, why did you say that. We wanted to have that dynamic.
The sex scenes are always about dual pleasure for the man and the woman. Is that one of your requirements?
We don’t go into sex scenes thinking like that. I will say that it is a female-driven sex universe on our show. We do a sex rehearsal 24 hours before we actually shoot the scene so everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen. And I do focus on female pleasure. I think that’s something that makes our show rare. Female pleasure is actually a specific goal of the team. And that works for both men and women who are watching the show, because actually female pleasure is a heterosexual male goal. So it works for both people.
In an interview you recently did with Cosmopolitan, you talked about how you want there to be a time when there is a community of black female showrunners and not just one or two. How do you do that?
By hiring and promoting women and hiring and promoting people of color certainly. But I think the only thing I can do is make more of myself.
You never sugarcoat how hard it is to break into TV writing and actually be successful.
I think that there has been a change since I was first getting into the industry. Now we have YouTube and Vine so people can get famous overnight. People think they can break in without learning their craft. If you are going to go the traditional route, if you don’t know what you’re doing, they will take your show from you. I just always caution people that getting your own show on the air, that’s a hard job, but keeping it there is a whole second job.
Power is now the most popular original series on Starz and got moved to a primetime TV spot on Sunday nights. What was your mindset going into season three?
It’s funny because we started making season three and writing it way before we knew anything about the ratings of season two. It’s just the same as it always is. I work my life one day at a time, I don’t get ahead of myself. I only do the best that I can do, I can’t do anything better than that. So, that means that I can’t get into the hype of being like, oh no, there are higher expectations, or there’s more eyes on us so we have to do something differently.
The first season that we did the show, I had no viewers, there was no feedback. It was just me and my writers, and the actors and the directors trying to make a successful show. Since that was the first season and it went well, I can’t worry about the outside stuff.
There was a controversy when Orange Is the New Black came out and people found out that there weren’t any black or Latino writers behind the scenes. Do you think being black and being a woman forces you to be more self-aware about what you’re writing and your portrayal of characters?
I think a talented writer can write any character, can write any scene, can write any sort of dialogue, can write from any experience.
So, when there are stereotypical portrayals of minorities in television and film, is that just not a good writer?
Well, your question implies that there are problems. And I don’t agree.
You don’t think there are issues?
No. I think I know what you’re trying to get at, but the way that I look at your question, I can’t answer that. What you’re looking for is a commentary on who should write what or when those mistakes are made, and I don’t agree with the premise. Basically, when someone writes a character that they don’t know well, that’s a mistake and that has nothing to do with race, gender, sexuality. I’m not a drug dealer, I don’t have to be in order to write them well. It’s as simple as that.
It’s not about identity, it’s about doing your homework. The race or gender or sexuality of the writer is completely immaterial. Just as the race and gender and sexuality of the journalist should be immaterial, in a sense. If you write a profile, right? You are actually showing up to that person to talk about them, therefore you should be talking about them. For me, it’s like I don’t even think that question is relevant. We as writers, especially as women of color, need to avoid any conversation that is about the essentialism of who should write what. If we tell other people what they can write, then they get to tell us what we can write. And that’s a no-go.
You rarely hear this question answered from a television writer's perspective.
Yeah, it’s offensive when someone says X or Y can’t do that because they aren’t X or Y. It’s like saying that I can’t report on a hurricane because I’m not the wind. It’s just a ridiculous, ridiculous idea. It’s so important that we not even engage in those conversations.
I’m pretty sure that George Lucas was never a Wookie. It’s ridiculous. Is somebody going to pull Gene Roddenberry out of the grave for not being Vulcan, or are they just going to watch the one of the greatest series ever made? We should be fighting for our right to write whatever we want.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.