Fox's TV drama rekindles the on-screen chemistry between Terrence Howard and Tariji P. Henson from Hustle and Flow. It may have been hard out here for a pimp, but Howard now ditches his doo rag for expensive suits, mansions, money and fame to embody Lucious Lyon, an artist who evolved from rapper to CEO of his own company, Empire Entertainment.
And like many successful men, he did not get there alone. Enter Henson's character Cookie Lyon, Lucious' ex-wife, who served time in jail to keep her family together. Incidentally, she also provided the "dirty" money that helped Lucious start the company. The drama ensues when Cookie is released from jail and rejoins the business. A dueling thread is the power struggle between their three sons over who will become the next urban king.
The series boasts a talented cast and is directed by Academy Award-winning director Lee Daniels, best known for films like Precious and The Butler. So with such talent backing this endeavor on and off the screen, why is Empire getting flack — especially from some folks within the black community?
The show's overwhelmingly popular. According to Variety.com, Empire "became the first program in the history of Nielsen's People Meters (going back to 1991) to grow in total viewers with each of its four episodes following its premiere." Feb. 18's episode hit 12.9 million viewers.
A hard-core fan, I wanted to query someone who did not share my opinion. I reached out to Charlotte filmmaker Narcel Reedus to get his opinion. The chief creativist at digital storytelling agency Story Street Studio admits he's not into the show. "I'm sure it's an entertaining, well-written and acted drama," he said. "But I take exception to the notion that the only way for black folks to be the main characters of a dramatic TV series is inside of a hip-hop box. It's reality TV with production value."
Yes, the premise is indeed built around hip-hop. But if you look beyond that, the series actually challenges some very interesting and provocative concepts.
Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) and another statuesque figure, Porsha (played by Ta'Rhonda Jones) are assistants to Lucious and Cookie. Both women are not typical characters in a mainstream corporate environment, one being a large dark woman (Sidibe) and the other (Jones) decidedly "hood." These women are more than capable in their positions, but the fact they do not fit a traditional corporate image means they would normally not have access to such opportunities.
Of course, race and media are prevalent themes throughout. For example, the show addresses co-option of culture when Lucious and Cookie both acknowledge the mainstream appeal of their non-black artists — Courtney Love plays rocker Elle Dallas — as well as the majority of hip-hop consumers being non-black.
In another scene, the youngest son Hakeem pulls a stunt at an upscale establishment, and the authorities are contacted. Both Lucious and Cookie remind Hakeem that as a young black man, his status and wealth do not make him immune to the same threats facing other young black men, due to a prevalent image in the media that, ironically, artists like himself perpetuate.
But the most compelling storyline for me is the one involving the middle son Jamal, who is unapologetically gay. Jamal not only challenges the ideals of masculinity for his family but also addresses issues of homophobia within the misogynistic world of hip-hop. If you haven't watched the show, spoiler alert ahead. In one compelling flashback, a young Jamal teeters into the living room during a house party, dressed in his mother's heels. It's a sight that enrages Lucious so much that he picks up the toddler, takes him outside and puts him into a trash can. This act of treating a gay youth as literal trash speaks volumes about the attitudes of many within the black community.
While some black viewers remain resistant to Empire's stereotypical "urban" themes and its gay content, let me say this: It is not the responsibility of one show to represent a culture. The real challenge is to have other voices present in the media to explore the rich and diverse experiences within that culture. Empire is doing its part in creating an alternative narrative, and as someone who is "Team Cookie" all the way, I feel encouraged.