I was not amused by “Empire” when it first hit the collective media consciousness a few months ago. Mostly, I was irritated by co-creator Lee Daniels and the cultural dysfunction that clings to his work. The black women are shackled with the approved stereotypes of poverty or subservience, abrasiveness and hypersexuality, with a heavy dose of bitchiness toward other women thrown in for good measure. On “Empire,” the poverty is exchanged for crass materialism, but Taraji P. Henson's nuanced performance manages to save her character Cookie from being a comfortable stereotype.
Let's be real: “Empire” is basically the Taraji Show and the humanity that she pours into Cookie's loud, street-savvy persona won me over. The show is trashy, flashy and serves up memorable music. It's entertaining and soapy like a good nighttime drama should be. But that does not change the fact that as it ascends to the top of TV ratings, “Empire”’s skin-color dynamics continue to contribute to the psychological damage of many black people.
With old school, brutal racism (not the “microaggression” kind) allowing consequence-free murders to plague this country, it may seem petty to be concerned about colorism. But all the excitement and success that surrounds “Empire” cannot erase the reality that it's a glossy showcase for internalized racism. Just looking at the publicity photos of the lead characters, all flashing light, tawny skin, is like viewing an ad for a 20th-century paper bag party. The series has been called out for a cast that features only light-skinned people in the significant, powerful roles and relegating dark-skinned people to subservient, minor roles, but let's examine the details and fallout for this kind of imagery. (Obviously, spoilers ahead.)
There are only three consistent characters with dark skin on “Empire.” Gabourey Sidibe's character, Becky, is assistant to Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). She's also plus-sized and saddled with a mop of garish, platinum-blonde weave that clashes ridiculously with her ebony skin. Becky is smart and quick-witted, but Lucious treats her like a mindless lackey, constantly screaming at her, and in one cringe-worthy scene, throwing a barrage of gumballs at her to show his displeasure.
Porsha, played by Ta'Rhonda Jones, is Cookie's assistant and she's also handled with disrespect. Cookie routinely yells at her and commands her to shut up, and in one memorable moment, sends her to retrieve the shoe she hurled at Lucious. Then there's Malik Yoba's character, Vernon, who has helped Lucious build his empire, but is given none of the acknowledgment or respect such a role typically earns. Vernon is conniving and struggles with an addiction. Like most black characters in action and horror films, he was killed off in the season finale.
None of these characters enjoy any of the power or perks the main characters claim. They are relegated to the sidelines and are mostly presented in an unflattering light. The other side of this is the equally damaging portrayal of Grace Gealey as Anika, the “tragic mulatto.” Anika is biracial and even lighter-skinned than the other cast members. She's conniving, insecure and haughty. She wears pearls. She's a debutante. She plays such a tired, limiting stereotype it's almost a relief when Cookie hauls off and punches her in the face during the finale. (A scene that instantly became a Vine classic.)
If “Empire” and other shows reflected a more balanced range of skin tones, these portrayals wouldn't be so problematic. Instead, it's 2015 and “Empire” closely follows the colorism hierarchy set into motion during more than two centuries of America’s slave trade. The rape of enslaved Africans by European masters produced mixed-race children who often received privileges like lighter work loads, literacy training and eventual freedom. Their darker-skinned, unmixed brethren were rarely provided such special treatment. After Emancipation, a hierarchy of light-skinned black people became community leaders with access to jobs and education that were closed to darker-skinned black people. At black colleges, the paper bag test – wherein only African Americans with skin lighter than a brown paper bag were admitted – further established the separation between skin tones.
The policy continues today, not just on screen and in ads, but in everyday lives. These vicious practices of internalized hatred, created over a century of exclusion, have bred low self-esteem and resentment. Research shows that dark-skinned black people suffer more discrimination when it comes to opportunities for income, jobs, housing, education and even marriage. “Empire” reinforces the whole ugly system with roles that don't reflect a diversity of colors and experiences. The show highlights the privileges of light skin and devalues dark skin.
I'm not suggesting that a campy TV show like “Empire” is responsible for the white supremacy that spawned centuries of racism and colorism. But as a show filled with African-American directors, writers and actors, it has the power to reshape the color narrative. Just as Lee Daniels tackles homophobia on “Empire” and boldly shows Jussie Smollet's Jamal as a thoughtful, multidimensional African-American man in loving gay relationships, a rare reflection on any screen, he can use that same power to slam colorism.
I was thrilled when Becky was promoted to A&R by Jamal during the season finale. I almost cried when her character was finally given the agency to snap back at Lucious, “I need you to use your inside voice with Becky.” And in a sly aside, Becky explains that her name, a long-time code phrase for white girl, comes from her white mother. With one clever line, Becky blasts through stereotypes and expectations of what a biracial person should look like. It was a much-needed improvement in a season stuffed with harmful color tropes.
Now if only Anika could have a few more layers added to her personality in Season Two. Maybe she can explore the alienation she may have felt growing up biracial so that she's not a walking, light-skinned caricature. I'd love to see some darker-skinned characters in powerful positions—heading up a rival record label or negotiating for Lucious' inevitable release from jail. Whatever the lineup, “Empire” needs to expand on the range of black experience so that it reflects and includes more skin color variations for its second run. Then it won't just be the Taraji Show. It will be the show that challenges colorism.