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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'Empire' Strikes Back at Homophobia

It’s been a few weeks now since the finale of Empire’s inaugural season, but I can’t get it out of mind.  The blockbuster Fox series, which shattered records for increased ratings as the show progressed, awaits a boatload of well-deserved Emmys.  Arguably, Empire is the best non-cable show over the past several years, and its surging popularity transcends race, gender and sexual orientations—as there is something for everyone in this explosively intense drama whose 60 minutes zip by in a flash.
Empire co-creators Lee Daniels (L.) and Danny Strong
So popular is Empire that American Idol, the TV ratings leader board king year in and year out, has strategically hitched onto Empire’s streaking horses.  Empire, unless the script lapses into “crazy land”—the bane of many formerly successful TV shows—should be around for a long stretch.
That apparently was not the mindset of the producers and the network when they signed on for merely 12 episodes.  Believing that Empire would be one and done, the powers that be had the principal character, Lucious Lyon (played wonderfully by Terrence Howard) dying of ALS.  When the over-the-top ratings numbers shocked the network bigwigs (the premiere in January drew 9.9 million viewers, the finale just under 13 million), Empire had miraculously found a cure for ALS to keep the character going.  Not really; it had been a misdiagnosis all along.

What’s not to like about the show? It has a solid, original sound track even if hip-hop is not your favorite musical genre.  Most musical performances are as riveting as they are rhythmic.  The show boasts the best actress on television, in my opinion, with Taraji P. Henson as the none-too-shy and complicated Cookie Lyon, the estranged ex-con wife of the powerhouse hip-hop record label (Empire Entertainment) mogul Lucious Lyon, the family’s patriarch. 
It has an openly gay co-creator in Lee Daniels who had directed such films as Shadowboxer, Precious and The Paperboy, and a gifted award-winning co-creator Danny Strong who won honors for political TV movies Recount and Game Change.

There is a talented, almost exclusively African-American cast including a core ensemble of exceptional actors, a recurring cast, and guest stars who appear along the way. 
It also showcases a gay character (Jamal Lyon played by now openly gay Jussie Smollett) who is not merely an accessory in the series that some shows do to check off a box; instead, he is among the central characters whose tense, dramatic storyline helps attract those millions of viewers.

The show unapologetically portrays the gritty hard truths of the sometimes messy world of hip-hop: money, greed, sex, infidelity, drugs, revenge, murder, and turf battles in an urban setting.   And it deals with homosexuality from both ends in a bold and provocative way.
What I like most about Empire besides Cookie (who doesn’t?) is how the script deals with the gay Jamal character.  As the middle son in the Lyon clan, and a favorite of Cookie’s, Jamal possesses an abundance of musical talent in both writing and vocally that he inherited from his father Lucious. 

But when Jamal as a small tyke donned his mother’s scarf and high heels and sashayed with her handbag inside their home, the intensely homophobic Lucious picked up the boy and threw him into a metal trash can outside—a horrific scene repeated a few times as a flashback during the season.  This violent act was abhorred by Cookie, who always knew he was different but vowed to have his back, no matter.
...[Empire] deals with homosexuality from both ends in a bold and provocative way.

To be fair, when it comes to homophobia, African-Americans as a group do not corner the market.  But it is common among many church-going black folks and that characterization rightly or wrongly was brought to the surface during the battles for marriage equality. 

Homophobia as in the case of misogyny is a powerful element in the hip-hop culture.  To that end, the fictional Empire world weaves that aspect of reality into the show’s plot with skill and sensitivity.
“Attacking homophobia was in my original pitch to Lee,” says co-creator Danny Strong in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Where I said the hip-hop mogul is going to have a gay son who is incredibly talented who should be the one who takes over the empire, but he hates him because he’s gay. And unflinchingly attack homophobia in this mainstream piece of material.”

Smollett who plays the gay character found out that his own personal life was being examined and he had to answer the inevitable questions.  He finally came out as Empire was in high gear, which added more texture to the show’s success.
“One thing I was hoping was that young people who think they’re gay or know they’re gay at that age will watch Jamal and watch Empire and they’ll see Lucious and they’ll see that Lucious is wrong and Jamal is right, and it will make them comfortable with themselves and who they are,” says Strong.  “Maybe they’ll not have to go through the struggle that some people did who didn’t have role models like that.”

Indeed, Smollett’s character Jamal stands up to Lucious, challenges a homophobic rap artist on stage with an intense dueling duet, and emerges as the successor to run Empire Entertainment at season’s end.  The good guy has won—at least for now. Stay tuned.

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