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‘Project Power’ Delves Into The Scientific Exploitation Of Black Women’s Bodies

‘Project Power’ imagines a world where Black women can get free and remove the shackles of scientific racism that have attempted to bind us for centuries. 

CN: This article contains spoilers for the film “Project Power” and mentions anti-Black experimentations on Black women’s bodies.

By S.R. Toliver

Set in the poorest part of New Orleans, Netflix’s Project Power explores a world where a scientifically-engineered pill called Power grants the user a super ability specifically based on their DNA, but only for 5 minutes. The story follows Robin Reilly (Dominique Fishback), Officer Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Art/The Major (Jamie Foxx), as they attempt to stop the government contractor, Teleios, from distributing the drug, but it’s Art’s background that drives the plot. Specifically, Art was one of Power’s first test subjects, a military officer who underwent gene mutation and radiation therapy because Teleios hoped to develop superpowers in everyday humans. After seeing the destruction his power caused to others and to himself, however, Art decided to leave the military, and a few years later, his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) was born. Art’s potent genes were passed down to Tracy, and she was able to develop and use her powers without assistance from the pill. Her talents pique the interest of Teleios, and although Art tries to protect her, they eventually steal Tracy away in hopes that her genes will be the link that helps them to stabilize their drug. 

Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) in ‘Project Power’

The use of Tracy’s body as a site of forced experimentation mirrors the legacy of unethical research on Black women’s bodies. Gardner (Amy Landecker), the lead scientist in the film, acknowledges this connection, linking her research to the scientists who operated on Henrietta Lacks. In a conversation with Art after his capture, Gardner says that Lacks’ cells, “stolen, without consent are the backbone of nearly every medical advancement in the last century.” She further argues that “all of our greatest advancements began in darkness… but it’s up to the pioneers to light the way.” Her words harken to other scientists who justified their experimentation on Black women based on the possible benefits for the rest of humanity. She, like so many scientists before her, considers herself a savior because experimenting on the most vulnerable is acceptable as long as the powerful can profit.  

Gardner’s perception of Tracy as thing, not human, is not a novel concept, for the history of experimentation on and dehumanization of Black women is centuries old. J. Marion Sims is known as the father of gynecology, but his innovative research was conducted on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. Francois Marie Prevost is known as the inventor of the c-section, but he perfected his technique by repeatedly experimenting on enslaved Black women. Ephraim McDowell is known as the father of abdominal surgery, but he primarily experimented on enslaved Black women to develop the ovariotomy. Even in death, Black women were subjected to unethical scientific methods. Upon Saartijie Baartman’s death, Georges Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body, preserved her skeleton, pickled her brain and genitals, and displayed her parts at a museum because he believed her to be the missing link between the highest and lowest form of human life. Each of these scientists are considered pioneers whose great advancements began in the darkness of Black women’s bodies, but the pain, misery, and capture of Black women serve as an addendum to their overall success. This is the legacy Gardner hopes to be a part of by experimenting on Tracy, but Project Power refuses to allow the same old story to be told. 

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After some intense action that includes Art releasing his power once more, Tracy is finally set free. In the end, we get to see Tracy rip off the medical bracelet wrapped around her wrist and throw it away. With tear-stricken eyes, she looks up and smiles, unburdened by the grip of her former incarceration. She’s free. 

Tracy’s emancipation from the medical lab symbolizes a freedom that many Black women never had. She sees the destruction of the scientists who used her body against her will, an event that so many Black women were never able to see because they died on the operating table. She uses her powers for the benefit of someone she loves, given a choice as to how she uses her abilities rather than being forced to give her life for the benefit of all humanity. Her removal of the medical band shows how Project Power imagines a world where Black women can get free and remove the shackles of scientific racism that have attempted to bind us for centuries. It shows a possible future, where Black women get to decide how we want to use our talents and gifts. It envisions a world where we decide how, when, and if we use our superpowers. 

S.R. Toliver is an assistant professor of literacy and secondary humanities at the University of Colorado Boulder who writes about speculative fiction, Black girls, and social justice. Find her on Twitter @SR_Toliver

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