Anthony Stokes on how Empire is both empowering and offensive to African-Americans…
Empire is the hottest new show over at Fox. It has tapped into the elusive but lucrative African-American market, and had the most watched finale of a new show in a few years, which is a huge deal because this is a very important show to the African-American community. I know people get tired of hearing this, but there needs to be more roles for minorities of all shades and Empire is the first piece of entertainment I can think of that’s not a Tyler Perry movie which employs so many black people. That being said, at times it’s extremely detrimental and very stereotypical. I’m glad it’s getting a second season and keeping a lot of actors working but it also needs some work itself, because I’ve been offended to the point of almost turning it off several times.
The reason Empire is empowering to African-Americans is obvious. A lot of the actors probably wouldn’t be working if it wasn’t for this show. Terrence Howard definitely needed the work after being bumped off the Marvel train and seeing Iron Man 3 make a billion dollars. There was a point where I said “wow, the only black actor missing here is Derek Luke” and then lo and behold he showed up. And with it being so high profile I can see Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson getting noticed during award season, which would be well deserved as I haven’t seen performances as good as these yet this year. Howard basically has a character that is extremely confused and poorly written, and through his acting ability alone he pulls it off. Having it centered on a black business is really nice, although it had to be based on rap music, but we’ll get back to that later.
There’s also the matter of having a homosexual male character as a lead in the show. It’s also cool that the actor himself is homosexual, and once again probably wouldn’t get work in mainstream entertainment like this. Homophobia is a problem in the black community, but clearly it’s not as bad as people think because this is one of the most popular shows on television within the black community. There’s also a lot of positives messages about coming out and this not being a bad thing.
There’s the good about Empire, so now onto the bad. There is some very bad stereotyping on this show; at one point I said “it feels like a white person wrote this” and it turns out the majority of writers on this show are white. That’s not to say whites can’t write black characters or shouldn’t try, but it felt like it was written by someone who’s never been to the ghetto or spent that much time with urban black people. I’ve been around a wide variety of black people and from rich to poor, none of them really act like this. The show almost seems self-aware with how silly it is and how over played the drama of being disenfranchised is. If you compare a flashback of this to say Hustle and Flow, which featured Henson and Howard and is probably the spiritual predecessor to Empire, you see how cartoonish it is.
At times Empire does seem self-aware. As a soap opera it has some pretty decent drama. That said there have been allegations against it of coonery. For those unfamiliar, coonery is something that perpetuates African-American stereotypes. Now in defense of Empire I don’t know if the foolishness here is specific to black people most of the time. I think if you take race out of it, it’s not really that bad. But there were some instances I took an exception to. One of the characters , Andre, has bipolar disorder. At one point Cookie basically insinuates that black people don’t have bipolar disorder and that it’s something that white people exclusively have. Now granted the character of Cookie is extremely flawed and is not very intelligent, but still it felt as if it was written in a non satirical way; like whoever wrote that genuinely felt that’s how blacks feel about certain mental illnesses. And yeah a few do, but that’s not the kind of image you want to be putting out. It also has a few characters that are cartoonishly stereotypical in a non-entertaining way. Same with the homosexual subplots. It’s so clichéd it does as much harm as good.
If Empire had one more good writer it would be a good show. If it had the writers of say Sons of Anarchy or American Horror Story, it would be a good show. It’s also got some really good messages about positivity, and this is an important show for America. I just hope it gets the wrinkles ironed out in season two.
Anthony Stokes is a blogger and independent filmmaker.