“Power Book III: Raising Kanan” is set in a world of unbridled avarice, ruthless scheming, racy seductions and cold-blooded homicide. So, what’s a nice, classically trained stage actor like Patina Miller doing in a place like this? As it turns out, she’s giving one of the best performances of her esteemed body of work.
Miller stars in “Raising Kanan,” one of three crime dramas to spinoff from Starz’s flagship thriller “Power” since it concluded in 2020. Her character, Raquel “Raq” Thomas, is a single mother living on the rough and tumble area of Queens in 1991. As with all the protagonists in the sprawling narrative universe, Raquel is a self-made entrepreneur. She runs a robust cocaine distribution operation with her brothers. But she’s determined to make sure her clever but willful 15-year-old son Kanan (well-cast newcomer Mekai Curtis) doesn’t get sucked into the all-consuming family business.
As fans of the franchise know, Raquel’s efforts to steer Kanan down a more righteous path prove to be a colossal failure. As played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, the adult Kanan was truly his mother’s son: a big-timer in New York City’s pills-and-powder game. But his attraction to the criminal underworld was about more than capitalism. The Kanan audiences met in “Power” wasn’t as much a rapacious kingpin as a Cormac McCarthy villain. He was a pure vessel of malice and chaos, a trigger-happy wild card who cast an outsize shadow over the series relative to his screen time. That Kanan, who eventually died in a hail of police gunfire, is difficult to square with the elementary-age kid first seen in “Raising Kanan” crying and bruised after being brutally robbed by neighborhood toughs.
As Kanan lies in bed nursing his wounds, the connective tissue between his child and adult versions comes breezing in wearing skin-tight denim and nuclear-green gel nails. While Raq chastises her son for making himself an easy target, she casually drops D-cell batteries into an athletic sock. Raq marches Kanan back to the scene of the crime and lays out his choices: either he pummels the culprits with her improvised weapon or he faces her wrath later. By the time mother and son reconvene, Kanan has gained a reputation and decommissioned a sock.
The opening sequence makes for a powerful dual origin story for Raq and teenage Kanan, with the mother passing down generational wisdom to her son. Raq is a petite woman operating in a male-dominated criminal underworld where “might makes right.” For her, no slight or disrespect can go publicly unanswered, and de-escalation is usually a last resort. Raq can’t afford to betray a moment of weakness, but her greatest vulnerability is her love for her son. It’s a character that demands the rare combination of intensity and nuance, and Miller’s performance perfectly calibrates both.
Miller is playing against type in “Raising Kanan,” having made her name in stage musicals including “Sister Act” and “Pippin”, for which she earned a Tony for lead actress in 2013. But she found the core of Raquel’s character by channeling her own mother, who gave birth to Miller at 15. She brings a sense of stage physicality to the role, reflected in distinct body postures that recur with each of Raq’s moods, from flirtatious to menacing to maternal. There’s also Miller’s top-notch accent work that is every bit as thoughtful and lived-in as the ballyhooed Delco drawl that earned Kate Winslet an Emmy for “Mare of Easttown.”
Standing out in the crowd can be a challenge in the “Power” universe, which, between its three series includes dozens of regular cast members and twice as many interlocking storylines. But Miller, who’s technically the franchise’s first female protagonist, has more than distinguished herself with a performance shot through with intelligence, sensitivity and maternal fury. Emmy voters tend to shy away from pulpier fare and that has left the “Power” franchise perennially overlooked come awards season. But Miller dares you to ignore a performance that packs a bigger wallop than a battery-filled sweat sock.