BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The best genre films do double duty, entertaining us while simultaneously saying something socially relevant. Project Power Netflix’s entry into the superhero arena does just that, by combining a very timely message with a superhero story that feels like something that was cribbed from some near-future headline. The film stars Dominique Fishback as Robin, a young woman from inner city New Orleans who is forced to deal a new drug called Power that is all the rage, to help make money for her mother’s diabetes treatment. Power essentially works like this: you take the drug and it interacts with your DNA, sometimes manifesting a power that is usable for up to five minutes. The superpower it temporarily bestows on you depends on the individual, and you won’t know what it is until you take the drug. But results may vary. While quite a few people will develop super speed or strength, a smaller percentage of people will take the drug and simply explode.
When the film starts it’s been six weeks since Power was introduced to the streets of New Orleans. As you might expect, criminals are using Power to commit crimes, overwhelming the police who are just trying to come to terms with the very new and real threat. One of Robin’s clients just happens to be a good-natured cop named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who uses Power to become bulletproof and render himself impervious to the small arms firepower of the criminals. This strategy backfires when he inadvertently outs himself as a user of the drug during a firefight and is given an ultimatum by the chief: track down the man behind power known as The Major (Jamie Foxx) or surrender his badge. The problem is The Major comes to town looking to get to the top of the “power” food chain kidnapping Robin as his unwilling guide. Nothing in Project Power is what it appears to be at first glance, and we soon discover the government is the drug cartel behind Power and is using the inner city’s inhabitants as guinea pigs in their clinical trials of their latest super weapon.
Sadly, Project Power’s riff on a government using poor people as a petri dish is something that frighteningly has its roots in very firmly planted in reality. But it’s how the film grounds this world and the rules that govern its namesake drug that makes the film work as well as it does. The drug has very tangible limitations, and the unpredictability of it lends another layer of believability to the fantastic, and greases the rails of audience buy-in when the stakes are raised throughout the film. This is also a testament to the cast, especially Foxx who steers clear of any comic book cliches delivering a heart wrenching performance as the supposed source of the drug. Gordon-Levitt thankfully took a pass on the usual white savior trope and instead opts for street-wise-cop-with-heart in a way that delivers something much more convincing.
With its themes of racial oppression and a corrupt police force watching their community burn the film feels a bit more relevant than it should be. Taking a page from HBO’s Watchmen, the film lets the metaphor rise to the forefront to tell a story of temporarily superhuman individuals hobbled by very human problems. As far as original Netflix action fare goes this is probably the best film they’ve turned out to date, while it still suffers from that odd pacing that most Netflix films tend to have.
I do applaud them, however, for making a self-contained story with a satisfying conclusion that was more focused on telling a story than the franchising up, which was a bit of a shock and a relief. Project Power is the super hero film that 2020 needs and one that finally delivers on the promise of a “gritty, dark, grounded” story promised by every comic book movie director ever. Recently, Phawker was afforded the opportunity to speak with Dominique Fishback, who plays Robin, a young black woman who is forced to deal Power to pay her mother’s medical bills, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt who plays Frank The Cop.
PHAWKER: When you got the script with superhero films being kind of ubiquitous these days, what was it about Project Power that kind of lured you in?
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK What brought me to Project Power was, Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon Levitt. I was like, what project could they possibly be doing together? Like, I couldn’t imagine it. Then it was like, what could a young character that I could play be doing in the story? I thought she was going to die really early. I didn’t think that she would have such a prominent, part in the storytelling and in concluding the story as well.
Then just my own dreams as a kid of watching Man On Fire, with Denzel and Dakota Fanning and like Natalie Portman and The Professional, and just dreaming of one day being able to take a role like that. But we don’t really get to see young African American girls, you know, kind of be that character, to be the one that these guys would do anything and sacrifice that themselves and their lives for. Not only did Robin get Jamie, she got Joe too, and she also got to save them too. So that was a great selling point for me.
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT For me. I just, I, it really sounded like a good time. I know that sounds simple, but it’s true. You know, I took a couple of years off acting when I became a dad. I was lucky to get, to spend some time with my babies. My first job back was this very intense drama called 7500, which also just came out. But after something so heavy, I wanted to do something fun. When I read the script for Project Power and it was these action scenes, and it was with Jamie Foxx and going to new Orleans together. I was like, this is, this is going to be fun
PHAWKER: Dominique, I loved you in The Deuce, I was a big fan of that show.
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK Thank you!
PHAWKER: So what did you bring from your personal experience, being a woman of color into the role of Robin that maybe wasn’t there to begin with?
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK Oh, well, Mattson Tomlin, the writer, he really created a gem character in Robin, you already knew what she wanted. We already knew her dreams. We knew she didn’t have in her life and she had in her life and what she was fighting for. So I was lucky in that sense, I guess you could say that I brought emotional depth in that to character. I do analyze my own emotions a lot, why I feel certain ways that I do. I am tapping into my emotion in that way. So I think what was fun to see for me is all of the ways like they could have taken many different tastes. You know, you do it a couple of times. Sometimes you do it the same, but sometimes they ask me a different direction. I just love that she really has the emotional capacity to always be like, she goes everywhere, she’s laughing, she’s crying, she’s brave. She’s scared. She’s all of the things that, that, that a person can be.
PHAWKER: Were you worried at all as an actor, because the film kind of rests on your shoulders, because we’re kind of experiencing this through you?
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK I wasn’t worried. I felt it’s been a long time coming. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little girl and I was only just looking for the opportunity to show what I felt I knew inside.
PHAWKER: So Joseph, I love Frank’s journey in the film. I have to ask, because he’s actually using power to do his job, which I thought was an interesting character dynamic. As an actor, did you work out that backstory of what made him initially cross that line to start using power?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT Yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, I like characters where you have the virtues and the vices. No one’s really a perfect hero. No one’s really a perfect villain, those don’t exist in real life. Humans are more complicated and anybody that’s going to try to tell you that anybody is just simply one way or the other is probably not to be trusted.
I do think that Frank really cares about New Orleans and he really does want to protect the people who live in his hometown. But I also think he’s also he’s subject to the human temptation, of being curious about this pill and wanting to take it. It’s that complexity that I think makes him really kind of interesting for me as an actor to play him and hopefully interesting for audiences to watch too.
PHAWKER: Dominique, what was harder for you? The stunt work or the performing you do, since Robin wants to be a rapper. I was just like, is she going to? And then you did and I was just like, wow, like everybody in the room goes quiet.
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK I would definitely say the stunt work, but not for anything. I’m an athlete. I played basketball. I was captain of my team in high school and I’m a really good quarterback. So like athleticism is a natural part of who I am. So in that sense, the stunts weren’t harder, but I think it was the conditions, like we were in New Orleans for four months. It was very long nights and New Orleans gets super cold at night and you still have to wear the same clothes, you know, you try to layer up, but there’s just all these different weather elements and rain and all of these things that could distract you from the character work. So I think that made the stunts harder.
PHAWKER: For Robin’s particular rapping style, were you a fan of particular artist that you said, “okay, Robin should sound like this”, or “I believe Robin’s flow should go like this”?
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK No, I just kind of did my own thing. On my audition, I auditioned with Left Eye’s rap from No Scrubs. So they said you can pick whichever one and I picked that, because I thought maybe other girls wouldn’t have come with like, you know, like an older rap. It was really up to me how I wanted to flow, but he did have Chika, a rap artist, come and rap all of Robin’s wraps, which is amazing. She’s phenomenal, but it wasn’t, I didn’t have to follow her delivery on her flow, I kind of did my own thing.
Then at the end of the end of the movie, there was song with both Chika and I wrote the whole thing, but our flows are a bit different. So you could see that, I think she’s more lay back and she’s grooving and I’m more like, like push forward, you know. Like that Brooklyn kind of, you know, she has Tupac and TLC on her wall behind her as her influences.
PHAWKER: Now Joseph, I have to ask you an Inception question because the 10 year anniversary just hit. uh, what was your first reaction to the script? What was your first thought when you closed the script after reading it? Did some of the dream logic even make sense?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT Yeah, I mean, it did make sense, it’s really well written. I mean, I just kept pinching myself. I just felt so lucky to get to be working for Christopher Nolan. I think he’s just a brilliant filmmaker. But you know, in the script, that whole big dream gravity fight sequence is like one line of stage directions in the script. So the first time I read it, I did not know what I was in for. I was like, you know, getting gifts every day.
PHAWKER: So finally, given the socio/political climate Project Power feels almost like a reaction to 2020, rather than a film that came out during 2020. Did either of you have any idea it would be hitting such a nerve almost a year later? It’s kind of surreal.
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK Well we really didn’t, we couldn’t have imagined what was happening right now. But what’s happening right now isn’t really something new. I have a one woman show called Subverted that it’s about the destruction of black identity in America and it talks about police brutality. I’ve been doing it since like 2013 and trying to get it out there. So I think like some of us, we know. But I think now it was because of the pandemic, all eyes were on this. We weren’t distracted by all of the things that we normally get distracted by. I think that that really helped. I think we just got kind of lucky that the film touches on those things.