“So you can witness as Empire becomes synonymous with American culture and Lucius Lyon becomes a god.”
These words, spoken by Lucius Lyon (Terrance Howard) to a group of reporters part way through Empire‘s first season finale, can be read as a manifesto from creator Lee Daniels. While Daniels isn’t trying to bestow godhood on anyone in particular, he is out to change perceptions of race and sexuality in American culture, to challenge the the straight-white male default, to create a world where it is possible for a black owned and run hip hop empire to be considered the height of American popular culture.
Lee Daniels has always been a filmmaker whose work focuses on the lives and perspectives of those whom Hollywood ignores, with his work largely focusing on the marginalized black voice. Unfortunately, the commercial film world has never been a particularly receptive place to diverse voices and Daniels work, while critically acclaimed, has remained on the outskirts, much like the film’s characters. This is where the medium of television manages to surpass film.
That’s why Daniels’ latest project, Empire, airing on FOX, is such an effective vehicle for the foregrounding of race and homosexual representation within a popular sphere. Unlike film, television plays the long game which means it can afford to reduce marketing costs and rely on word of mouth to build an audience.
Over the past decade, television has established itself as a medium that not only accepts, but also promotes and encourages a diverse range of voices. More importantly, it has proven to be a platform where stories from marginalized voices cannot only be told, but more importantly can gain a significant audience and popular appeal. That’s why Daniels’ latest project, Empire, airing on FOX, is such an effective vehicle for the foregrounding of race and homosexual representation within a popular sphere. Unlike film, television plays the long game which means it can afford to reduce marketing costs and rely on word of mouth to build an audience. It also allows for a little more creative freedom for content creators because the episodes are less expensive and there is time allowed for a slow build to popularity. For a show like Empire this is imperative to Daniels intent behind the show—to break down boundaries and bring the underrepresented voices of black and more specifically black-homosexuals to the general population.
A large part of what makes Empire work lies in its re-appropriation of the typically whitewashed, pop culture phenomenon of the melodrama and soap opera genres for an almost exclusively black cast. In this instance the black characters are the default, and the white characters are almost solely defined by their race or their relationships to larger, social/cultural organizations that are traditionally coded as white or as existing in opposition to the black population, such law enforcement. Daniels strength has always lain in his ability to tap into stereotypes and assumptions that are culturally associated with his characters racial, sexual and gender identities to present the viewer with something that at first glance appears to support the established order. While many works that advocate for more diverse representation often steer clear of negative representations and focus on the positives or make discrimination and the overcoming of it central to the narrative, Daniels embraces every cliche and stereotype, placing them front and centre, steering directly into the cultural baggage that surrounds his characters.
In Empire, Lucius Lyon comes from the streets. His company was built on his rags to riches story and drug money, a secret that his wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) went to jail for almost two decades to keep. He may not have been a physically absent father, but he was still a distant one leading to a poor relationship with his three sons, Andre, Jamal and Hakim. In many ways Lucius is the stereotypical black man: violent, cut-throat, emotionally distant and homophobic, with a history of sleeping around and abusive relationships. As an ideal character for sensational drama, people like Lucius are also a staple of the soap opera. As a result, these stereotypes become less associated with the genetics or race of the character and instead become part of the larger pop culture landscape that is dominated by white people. Lucius isn’t an angry tyrant because he’s black and this is therefore part of his genetic code—he’s a tyrant because it makes good television.
In many ways Lucius is the stereotypical black man: violent, cut-throat, emotionally distant and homophobic. [But] Lucius isn’t an angry tyrant because he’s black and this is therefore part of his genetic code—he’s a tyrant because it makes good television.
All of this can be said of the other main characters in the show, who each begin fitting nicely into similar, familiar archetypes. Cookie is the crazy and jealous ex-wife, Andre, the straight-laced bipolar business man. The two younger sons Jamal and Hakim fit nicely into the sensitive, artistic gay and gansta wannabe respectively. The fact that theses characters can be placed in familiar soap opera tropes as well as racial ones means Empire does not feel subversive. Instead it feels familiar. We as viewers expect the emotional excess, violent behaviour, conspiracies, affairs and over the top plot twists. Combined with a high profile cast of guest stars like Courtney Love, Jennifer Hudson and Snoop Dog and the Oscar pedigree of leads Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard, Empire has all the elements of a typical pop culture juggernaut. Daniels manipulates the formula just enough to push boundaries, while still maintaining a mass audience.
Instead of preaching to the already converted as so often happens with pieces that try to affect a change in deeply engraved practices and beliefs, Lee Daniels’ Empire goes the other way. It embraces these practices and beliefs, luring the uninitiated in before they realize their associations are being rewired. What might at one time have been considered subversive or an anomaly ceases to be anything special. Instead the default changes and we are well on our way to a world when statements like Lucius Lyon’s are not considered to be groundbreaking. Instead they are just accepted as a part of reality.