Critics who claim Empire portrays the worst in black stereotypes forget that black characters are free to be as flawed as any other human beings.
The exploits of Lucious Lyon and his not-quite-estranged-enough wife Cookie have become must-see television for many Americans. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Fox drama’s viewership peaked with 14.2 million viewers last week, with roughly 100,000 new views of the series premiere episode per day on VOD, Hulu, and the FoxNow app. It’s on track to become the highest-rated new scripted series of the season.
But some have criticized the show for portraying the worst in black stereotypes—from its hip-hop industry clichés to its violence and drug dealing backstories. In a year with so many high-profile cases of black men being gunned down by police, and with so much racism being unveiled—from Hollywood executives to Oklahoma frat boys—critics feel that it is irresponsible to portray black people as criminals and crooks in such crass fashion.
For the uninitiated, the show revolves around Lyon, the former drug dealer who is now CEO of Empire Entertainment, and his wife, Cookie, who’s just come home after serving 17 years in prison and wants her stake in the booming business she helped start. In the center of the power struggle between the former lovers are their three sons: the manipulative, Ivy League-educated Andre; the sensitive singer-songwriter and gay middle son, Jamal; and the burgeoning hip-hop star and spoiled youngest son, Hakeem. The sons are all battling for their father’s respect and his company, oblivious to the fact that Lucious has been diagnosed with ALS and given three years to live.
Executive-produced by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), it’s all set against a “boughetto” (that’s “bougie + ghetto”—try to keep up) backdrop of gunplay, glitz, and gold diggers. And that’s rubbing some folks the wrong way.
Empire doesn’t try to be the defining portrayal of black people. No more than ABC’s Black-ish or Starz hit Power or popular Thursday night dramas like Scandal or How To Get Away With Murder. Black stories should be compelling and rich; they should be entertaining. They don’t have to be pristine. And they shouldn’t be preoccupied with presenting a black experience that serves as some sort of panacea for the racist ideas that permeate American culture.
There is no shortage of darkness on American television. Ever since Tony Soprano strangled a man while visiting colleges with his teenage daughter, the small screen has been overpopulated with antiheroes. Walter White was a chemistry teacher turned murderous meth dealer. Don Draper is an alcoholic womanizer and pathological liar. Nucky Thompson. Frank Underwood. And the list goes on. This is not the era of Alex P. Keaton, Steve Urkel, and Very Special Episodes.
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