Daniel Granville, our TV Editor, delves into the complex folds of the TV show Empire, and its relationship to being a black tv show about a cast of strong black characters.
09You have heard the soundtrack. You have seen the actors. Every Thursday night Twitter goes into meltdown over the latest piece of melodrama meted out by Fox. Empire is a glorious meteor in the surface of a TV landscape peppered with the ghosts of Don Draper and Heisenberg. The Day of the Difficult Man may be facing its twilight, but Terence Howard’s Lucious Lyon and co., all conjured from Lee Daniels’ imagination, are here to bring the Difficult Family back to our TV screens.
One of the most striking aspects of watching Empire is its depiction of black wealth and Hip-Hop luxury, juxtaposed against the smoke and mirrors streets from which Lucious, Cookie, and the Lyon clan arose. Nowhere is this more apparent than in each character’s distinct style: Hakeem’s street-inspired gauche designer-wear, Jamal’s neutrals and warm fabrics, Cookie’s eclectic, extravagant love affair with colour and fur, Andre’s chaste business suits, and Lucious’ subtle patterns and prints.
All of these distinct characters are unabashedly who they are. From the houses they live in, to dining and partying on the Lyon yacht, or at Club Leviticus, to their sonic and sartorial aggression, the Lyon’s Shakespearian dominance of the airwaves both represents (accurately) and legitimates the 1% fantasy exemplified by so many of today’s black entertainers.
Watching Empire as the US is constantly exploding with stories of the horrific terrorism against the black body positions it in a strange nexus. The identities of all the characters, which arguably could have been tipped into the territory of being overdrawn where they miscast, act as both quotable aspiration (i.e., Cookie) and a touchstone for many African-Americans and black viewers overseas. But the most interesting, albeit unsaid, commentary on identity and its need to be fluid and multifarious is naturally Lucious’ revealing to Jamal in the season finale that his birth name is Dwight Walker.
For the patriarch of a powerful entertainment family and a personally curated and stylised vision of successful black manhood, the name Lucious Lyon and all that it brings in tow is as real as the poor, young Dwight Walker. As with so much in urban entertainment, especially Hip-Hop, image is everything. Crafting an image of broad appeal requires the shrewdness and creativity Lucious Lyon has made as his trademark through the freshman season of the show. In order to appeal to the black masses on which Empire Entertainment’s foundation is built, Dwight Walker must be sublimated for the more aggressive Lucious Lyon, a vessel into which all the drug and crime affiliations that characterise gangsta rap demands can be poured.
Jamal’s sexuality is another great focal point of nebulous identity and the need to navigate it. While R&B’s intermingling of sex and sensuality may allow for more emotional expression, Hip-Hop, on which Empire Entertainment is built, is dominated by dominant men rapping about violence, crime, wealth and sex with women. There is (supposedly) no place for an openly gay artist. Lucious’ glaring homophobia is one of his defining traits and his repeated dichotomising of masculinity and homosexuality makes it all but impossible to relate to the son who probably, over the cause of the season, loves him the most. With the LGBT movement very much at the forefront of pop culture, by zeroing in on this clash of ideas of manhood between father and son, Daniels, who is himself gay, is putting the homophobia of urban entertainment on display and on trial. We see the widening gulf between Lucious and Jamal, the jokes he is submitted to endure at the hands of his industry peers and label-mates, the effect his father’s bigotry has on his own relationships, the emergence of an ex-wife from an ill-conceived marriage, and finally his accession to being the interim CEO of Empire Entertainment. No longer is the gay character on a primetime show an Otherised prop for diversity points; Jamal is empathic, obviously talented, and has served as the bridge between his on-again-off-again sparring partner parents.
To the future
Reading all the lauding of Empire, all of it deserved, including a feature in this month’s American Vogue, it is easy to be swept among the fanfare of the show without pausing to examine the strength of that adoration. To be clear: Empire is a brilliantly written, brilliantly shot, brilliantly scored and soundtracked piece of work and it deserves all the commercial and critical success it enjoys now and will continue to. However, one cannot forget that the reason the show has been so enthusiastically, aggressively celebrated is because it (among the other outliers of 50 Cent’s Power and the various BET projects on air) is all we have in the way of a majority black show on television.
Black shows, just like black movies, are held to higher standards of cultural and critical worth if they are to have crossover appeal. In using the excuse of dubious ROI, or that “black people don’t go to the movies,” major studios can sidestep the “problems” of race and diversity onscreen by throwing in some actors of colour into the background of their shows. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. It is a shameful reflection of how society sees black people, and how those who decide what in the pantheon of entertainment deserves critical acclaim. In all the years of the Academy Awards, the few black actors who have won have done so for portraying butlers, mammies, and slaves. In the last few years, TV has proved itself the more adaptive art form, and the one responding far quicker to touchstones of cultural change. Where else, but in Shondaland, could a middle-aged black woman (Annalise Keating of How to Get Away With Murder, played by the incomparable Viola Davis) flaunt her intelligence, complexity, and sexuality?
Shows like Empire are wonderful because they exemplify everything TV can and should be: intriguing, exciting, a little decadent; a place for all our fantasies to be reflected back at us. One of those fantasies, especially for people of colour, and the LGBT community, and those who are both, is accurate representations of characters who are flawed, relatable, and aspirational. For all the power Daniels’ Empire wields, its greatest trick will be serving as simply one in a number of great shows about black people. I stress that Empire, much like Scandal, HTGAWM, and other shows with racially diverse casts with people of colour at the helm (in the directorial and producer’s seats, as well as onscreen) should not have to shoulder the burden of perfection in order to convince the corporations that make them —and their movie studio cousins— that programs and films about successful people of colour are not just for a niche market. For now, that is the heavy crown all these shows, most conspicuously Empire, will have to bear.