“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” goes an old saying. Right now Empire is primetime TV royalty and its creators have to keep their head on a swivel to keep up with the criticisms being leveled at it. While no work of art is exempt from critique, most “critiques” I’ve heard or read have no basis in art/technique and are entirely opinion-based. Utilizing faulty logic, the Atlanta Black Star alleges that Empire is failing black people while Dr. Boyce Watkins refers to the show outright as “coonery”. Below I’ve rounded up 3 of the most common reasons that Empire is failing black people and address them.
1. Empire is anti the black family and anti-black women. The US as a whole isn’t as committed to family as we like to portray, hence why we repeatedly elect people who legislate against families. That voting electorate includes black people. Not every black person is “committed to family”, or working-class. Some black people (like some of everyone else) are committed to child-free self-interests. To portray the entire community one way would be to make Blacks a monolith, in the same way as stereotypes historically perpetuated by Whites do. In other words, it takes away individuality. Not only that, but it reinforces the idea of Blacks as superhuman. In doing so, it forces the expectation of assimilation/indoctrination — namely that Blacks have to adopt dominator culture and excel at it in order to be treated as decently as average Whites. Detractors of the show conveniently forget to point out that the show’s Empire Records is a family affair, albeit a dysfunctional one. Empire was already 6 episodes in when I started watching, but my mom had already been. Once I’d watched a few episodes I asked her, “Empire is basically a black version of Dallas, no?” to which she gave some thought to and replied that it was. So if anything, Empire is guilty of promoting family dysfunction in the same way that the most popular white-led soap opera are. To those who think Empire has a responsibility to black people: how is it the job of one fictional show on primetime television to carry the torch for black people? No one product, piece of entertainment or work of art can do that for any people. And it one could, it would be more likely to be a documentary or news expose than a primetime soap. To be upset with Empire for portraying Blacks imperfectly is futile. Whereas one viewer sees “a former drug dealer”, another sees a successful businessman who has the self-perpetuating woman and family problems that half of the c-suite has, with Cookie being no exception. Cookie is definitely exaggerated, but like the Atlanta Black Star said, “those women do exist.” With the benefit of being judged by the “content of their character” (“Dr. King’s grand vision) comes the freedom for Blacks to be individuals. Like it or not, there are black individuals like Cookie.
There are also white individuals like Cookie, and society doesn’t judge all white women or white people based off of Honey Boo Boo’s mom. Rather than fight for black women to fit any one image in the media, how about we fight for the opportunity to portray characters and be portrayed in various ways consistent with the diversity of the human experience in general, and the black experience in particular?
As a matter of fact, how about we take the pressure off of ourselves to stop living up to images, lest we allow black culture to become as narcissistic as society at large? Do we want to be “treated by and in society” as “good blacks” or as the wonderful, yet imperfect humans we are? We will never be treated as the latter if we don’t first honor ourselves as such and demand it. Perpetuating the image of the “good black” only tells white gatekeepers that Blacks will continue allowing them to define blackness. To quote Khalil Amani over at All Hip Hop:
“I give no fucks what white people think about black people—any—more than what the Italians think about being depicted in Godfather (I & II, fuck III), arguably two of the greatest cinematic masterpieces ever conceived!”
By no means am I arguing for colorblindness. That shit’s dangerous. What I’m urging is the allowance to exist and be portrayed as part of a sum, instead of the sum total.
2. Empire isn’t entertainment on the grounds of objectionable content. Firstly, I beg to differ on the grounds that 1 million more people tuned into the show the second week than the first (10 million week 1 versus 9 million week 2). Not to fallaciously appeal to popularity, but in the age of the internet and niche shows that’s a a big deal for a network show. Second, are parts of the show distasteful? Of course. Particularly the part where a newly sprung Cookie beats and bruises her youngest, Hakeem.
Whether or not that’s reason enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater is an individual choice. Whether or not a piece of art can make a statement in spite of distasteful subject matter (which is highly subjective) shouldn’t even be up for discussion. If one subjective scene disqualifies Empire from being “great”, then let’s recall every work that ever portrayed domestic violence (Celie told Harpo to beat Sofia,) rape (Sethe is gang raped with Schoolteacher’s knowledge), or teenage pregnancy (“Don’t fuck me, fuck yo’ wife. That’s why you gotta baby, now!”) — regardless of their critical or cultural significance. Speaking of objections: when it comes to Danny Strong’s heavy involvement in creating Empire, valid dialogue can be had about cultural appropriation. Questions about whether a white Jewish guy who made friends with Quentin Tarantino can write authentic dialogue for a down ass chick that did 17 years for moving weight for her husband, while valid are nothing new. They’re questions that have always plagued narrative writing in general and filmmaking in particular. Valid dialogue can also be had about consuming products (including media and art) from sources with dubious allegiances. At the end of the day not only is this a universal concern of every consumer in Western and Western-Influenced society, it’s an personal choice that no one is authorized to make for an entire group. Whether or not a black person should watch Empire is a decision on par with whether or not to consume goods made by children in emerging economies.
To hate that someone makes a choice different from us is to hate that fact that we’re afforded one.
3. Lee Daniels is a nut case with a gay agenda. While “blowing the lid off homophobia in the black community” may be a stretch, it’s disingenuous to act like it doesn’t exist within it, or the music industry — or that it shouldn’t be a concern for a gay R&B singer whose potential paying fan base is mostly heterosexual women.
Depending on the view being taken of mental illness, the assertion that Lee Daniels is using Empire to work out demons relating to mental illness or sexuality is at best an unsubstantiated characterization. At worst, it’s an ad hominem attack, likely fueled by homophobia. Further: all artists use their medium to work out inner conflicts, to an extent. Demonizing Lee Daniels or any other artist because of it is disrespectful of the creative process at worst, and to be ignorant of it, at best.
There are a lotta little things that can be haggled over: the name Lucious, the triteness of the gangster to CEO meme, but art and media are subjective. There can be no definitive answer to those little things. For all we know, 42,000 black dudes named Lucious watch the show and have been waiting for a primetime character with their name. Empire isn’t meant to be a definitive treatise on black people. It’s not meant to speak for an entire people. And if you as a black person are expecting it to, you’ve failed yourself — not the other way around. If you choose to subscribe to the notion of the “model minority” (which is what most criticism of the show amounts to; I have yet to see or hear well-reasoned critiques of the show from a filmmaking standpoint), you’re failing yourself. If you are dependent on the opinion of your colonizers for validation or advancement, I pray for you.