A month prior to the premiere episode of “Empire,” protests against police brutality and racial profiling were active in nearly every major city in North America. Political pundits, journalists and even a few celebrities critiqued the public perception of African Americans and urged people to look beyond media portrayals that present black people as one-dimensional characters. But despite the increase in public awareness around the power of racial stereotyping, “Empire” proves that sometimes, stereotypics are good for business.
“Empire” director Lee Daniels (Precious, Monsters Ball, The Butler) provides viewers with a glimpse of yesteryear, depicting 1990s-era urban music’s ascension into popular culture and adapting it into a modern-day fairy tale—one in which a label head has President Obama on speed dial. Taking a page from other televised dramas (initially; after the second episode, “Empire” was rebranded as a “nighttime soap opera”), Daniels loosely adapts a Shakespearean tale (King Lear) to guide the story: Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the CEO of Empire Records, a private record label on the cusp of going public. Recently diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), Lucious nonetheless keeps it steppin’. He has one foot planted in his past life as a ruthless hustler willing to kill to protect his business, the other in a world founded on the legend that a former rap artist built an "empire" from the ground up.
Lucious’ eldest son, Andre (Trai Byers), is the CFO who believes his lack of musical talent means that he has to fight for his father’s love. Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollet) is a talented soul singer whose sexuality has caused a rift between him and father. And youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is a semi-talented hip-hop artist.
Following a recent prison release after a 17-year stint on a drug charge, Cookie Lyon (Taraji Henson) sparkles as the dysfunctional matriarch. Despite her, ahem, ghetto fabulous attire and unsophisticated demeanor (but let’s give her a break; when she went into the clink, Salt n’ Pepa were ruling the charts) she was the brains behind the label, procuring the seed money through nefarious means. One wonders, though, does she care more about being acknowledged for her part in the success of Empire Records, or her children?
The first episode garnered an impressive 3.8 rating among viewers under 50 (approximately 5 million viewers). Within seven days of the premiere, that figure rose 47% to a 5.6 rating thanks to its online accessibility. Because the story is situated within the entertainment industry, it might have appealed to a wider audience than other black-centric soapy shows like “Scandal” or “How to Get Away with Murder.” Ratings skyrocketed after the second episode and “Empire” was picked up for another season.
While the show's sexy glossiness is alluring, it’s also filled with badly written dialogue and ham-fisted racial and sexual stereotypes. After being in jail for almost two decades, Cookie strangely transitions from protecting her young son’s “sensitivity” before and (thanks to flashbacks) during her sentence, to cruelly taunting him as an adult. She pushes herself into his life as his manager only to denigrate his sexuality to her ex-husband behind his back. Slurs like “faggot” are used emphatically, not just to urge a cringe-worthy response from viewers but to hammer home a much larger issue.
Daniels suggests it was necessary to show how deeply ingrained homophobia is within black communities. “What we're really trying to do...is give people an opportunity to see what they're doing is painful,” said Daniels at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January. “It's crushing someone that could be beautiful."
But author Boyce Watkins argues that Daniels ignores the fact that homophobia is just as prevalent in other ethno-cultural communities. “I’m not sure why black people are always the target of this kind of propaganda, especially when there are millions of white conservatives who have their own issues with homosexuality as well,” Watkins wrote in an editorial for AllHipHop. “Not to say that any of us should be forced into a position on gay rights or that we can even agree on what it means to be homophobic, but black people do not have a monopoly on homophobia, however it is defined.”
Addressing social dysfunctions within black communities has divided viewers into two camps: Those who love the campiness of the show, and those who are upset that these tropes are portrayed for all to see. Viewers have been turned off by Daniels’ casting of light-skinned black women and “white savior” characters. Lucious’ fiancee and Empire’s head of A&R, Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealy) suggests to Cookie that her light skin and debutante background is the reason she shares Lucious' bed, instead of her. Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), Andre’s white, blonde wife, is domineering and manipulative (and keeps his bipolar status quiet), stoking the flames of a very sensitive stereotype: that successful black men turn to white women to symbolize their elevated social status — and that white women are only there to take that cash and to demean them. One wonders about the casting of Lucious' assistant, Becky Williams (played by Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe), whose ill-fitting, bright blond weave and unflattering wardrobe is deliberate, exuding an oddball/“other” status that starkly contrasts with the rest of the actors.
Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen believes that within the schmaltz, there is room for displaying a more apt account of the complications and contradictions of black life. She argues that one of the successes of “Empire” is that it is a melodrama situated within a predominately black world. “The exclusion of whiteness, of stereotypical white signifiers, opens up a forum to explore what black life is within the context of America.“
But is it an accurate representation, or does it simply regurgitate racialized stereotypes? And can this be done on Fox television? Mused’s Jason Lawrence argues that there is no exclusion of white signifiers, especially in the casting decision to portray Jamal’s live-in boyfriend as a fair-skinned Latino. Lawrence wonders why Daniels didn’t choose another black character to portray Jamal’s lover, especially if he is so concerned with shedding light on homophobia within the black community. “The Cinderella stories of these men always end with their living happily ever after with a white lover, finally free from the supposed abuse and shame imposed upon them by their evil stepmother, the black community.”
There are legitimate fears whenever a TV program centered on a specific ethno-cultural group makes it to primetime television. People from around the world were recently schooled on how negative black male stereotypes have gotten people murdered, so why perpetuate them on television? Because it sells. Provocative images might chafe respectability politics but they get people watching and more importantly, talking.
In response to a recent “blackout” in Academy Award nominations, Selma actor David Oyelowo referred to previous African-American winners and the roles that won them an Oscar to argue that there is a reluctance to celebrate black actors who are portraying strong characters. After all, Denzel Washington won his Best Actor award for playing a drug-dealing cop, and not for his role as Malcolm X. “We, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient; when we are not being leaders or kings or being in the center of our own narrative, driving it forward.”
"'Empire' wasn’t created to entertain black people (although I’m sure it has black viewers),” Watkins continues. “It is instead selling an image of blackness to a predominantly white audience that has been long fed stereotypical messages about what blackness represents...Just like animals in the zoo, the world loves to observe black people at our most wretched, because ignorant negroes are simply fun to watch.”