As the previews for the Fox TV show Empire flashed across my screen, I dismissed it as another attempt to portray “us” as the stereotypical music business folks. I was getting my panties in a bunch, chip on shoulder, lamenting that Hollywood thinks all African-Americans do are rap and sell drugs. Closer to the series premiere, I couldn’t shake the image of Taraji P. Henson snarling “I want half my company back” as she flicked her white fur coat. Then Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” became my shower song, me belting it out to the chagrin of my sleeping family.
Watching the replay on DVR the next day, I was pleasantly surprised. Empire is not a dressed up “Tyler Perry” show (per The Mister) but a really compelling hour of soapy, guilty TV.
The episode opens with Terrence Howard looking for baby wipes and listening to a young woman attempt to lay down a track. This scene is spliced with Howard’s Lucious Lyons at a doctor’s appointment. Lucious is reflective as he dismisses the song, telling the girl to use pain, pain like her brother being murdered, to show her soul in the song. Cuz, any artist will tell you that the death of a relative is inspirational. The singer gives him a “Really?” look but manages to pull the song from her uterus and Lucious is finally happy.
Next we’re taken to a boat party and I’m ready to have a fit at the opulence and obvious attempt to show wealth. Hakeem and Jamal, Lucious’ younger sons, begin to fool around with a rap and piano riff. Oldest son Andre and his blonde trophy wife literally looks down at them and talks smack.
Lucious and Halle Berry’s cousin chat in a limo about a big announcement. They are whisked past and Gabourey Sidibe and her hideous blonde wig rattles off Lucious’ messages. Despite the wig, I love Sidibe already. “Scuse you, I’m back here!” she snaps when Lucious distractedly walks on. Anyone who has EVER worked with a gatekeeper, aka administrative assistant, knows this is not TV fodder.
After stopping off at his stylist, Lucious and his bouffant announces to a room full of executives, including Malik Yoba!, that he was a juvenile drug dealer but always had a passion for music. With the internet destroying sales, the disenfranchised kids in poverty can’t parlay drug sales into recording mogul gold like he did, this leads to Lucious announcing that he’s going to take Empire public. As long as he doesn’t do like Facebook did and ” ‘selectively’ disclose parts of its revenue outlook to only some investors and not all, Empire should be an okay investment.
Like any TV show, we get to the set-up scene. Lucious gathers all of his sons together to let them know that he plans to go public, and wants to groom someone, but only one. Jamal makes a quip about King Lear and I had to Google that because my exposure to King Lear has only been through Christopher Moore’s book “Fool”. Lucious lobbies that shade right back saying “Call it what you want, smartass…I need one of you Negros to be ready to lead it and take it. Nothing and nobody is going to tear this down.”
Yo, Cookie is a piece of work. She takes a moment to adjust to life on the outside, the only person I know who leaves jail with flawless makeup, a slick weave, and a white fur coat. She also refers to herself in the third person. Cookie means business.
Lucious, for all his puffed chest bravado, gets visibly upset when he hears that Cookie is out of jail. Rightfully so. Cookie went to jail on a drug charge (I’m unclear if she covered for him or got caught) and the 17 years spent behind bars were not kind. Her children didn’t keep in touch with her, Lucious got with another woman, and the company she started with $400,000 is no longer within reach. Cookie ain’t having it.
To read a recap of the rest of the show, Roxane Gay wrote a very thorough review for the Wall Street Journal.
I want to break down some comments I saw across my social media feeds.
- Starting with myself, I was one of the people complaining about Fox’s portrayal of African Americans based on the commercials. I prejudged the show and I am pleased to admit that I was wrong. While it does seem like all African Americans can do in the public eye is play basketball, rap, or sell drugs, this show doesn’t glorify this image. It shows a family unit, even if Mama Cookie was locked up, and the passion behind creating a flourishing company. My sister also pointed out “the last show that Fox had with a black character was on The Cleveland Show and that was voiced by a white actor!”
- Homophobia/gay bashing. Lucious is probably my age, a little older. Growing up, being gay or lesbian was not acceptable. That’s why there are down low brothers, people who are still in the closet, kids being persecuted for their lifestyle. Lucious told his son that he was making a choice by being in a relationship with a man. Cookie called him a sissy, and the end of the episode, Cookie also remarked that she wanted Lucious to see a “faggot” excel. Talk about hand wringing, panties in a bunch, pearl clutching (an aside: why isn’t there any masculine phrase for being upset. Men are in an uproar, annoyed or pissed. But that’s another post). There were laments about the use of these slurs and debate if it was necessary to use them. They weren’t gratuitous. The words were not gratuitous. They fit in. Lucious is this hardened kid sleeping on the mean streets of Philly. effeminate men would not be accepted in his circle. In a preview for an upcoming episode, he cries to his son “I don’t understand you!” That is homosexuality in the black community in a nutshell. We know there are gay people out there. We all have that family member who is a little extra: the aunt who looks like a dude, the cousin who played Barbie’s instead of tackle football. By no means do I stereotype gays and lesbians. I’m not even attempting to explain how my community sees this lifestyle. I know I would pause if one of my kids came home and announced they were gay. Would I love them any less? Of course not. I would not understand is all. I know someone speed reading this article will find it offensive, but it was refreshing to see a father who clearly loves his son, but is confused at his son’s choices. There was nothing cliché about the characters, and I look forward to seeing how the writers will address this without being condescending to the audience or the characters. I’m going to mad if three episodes from now its a Kumbaya love fest between father and son.
- Still on use of language, Cookie was in jail for 17 years. I am so sure she had other things on her mind that didn’t include political correctness. Calling her son a “sissy” is akin to me calling my kid a “punk” when he gets frightened at the ads for “Lady in Black 2”. I don’t want to say “Cookie keeps it real” because Cookie’s character is deeper than that. Yes Cookie wears animal prints. Multiple animal print outfits. She likens the smell of weaves to “goat ass’. She whipped her son with a broom like nobody’s business, and she knows how to make an entrance.
- Last, I can’t express my happiness at the character of Hakeem Lyon played my hometown guy Bryshere Gray aka Yazz the Greatest. I used to work with Yazz’z mom at Positively No Communication and she was real cool. Over the last year or so, she begin posting things about Yazz this, Yazz that. Since I have little to no knowledge about current hip hop music, I liked post for support and kept it moving. I was so excited to find out the Yazz she was posting about is one of the show’s stars! It is such a blessing to see people pay their dues and get rewarded! When I messaged her yesterday, you would have thought it was MY son on the show I was so excited. Congratulations to Bryshere and here’s to continued success!
Empire can be seen 9 PM EST on Fox every Wednesday.
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