REVIEW: Lee Daniels’ Light-Skinned Hip-Hop Series EMPIRE
Last May we got a glimpse of openly gay filmmaker Lee Daniels’ new Hip Hop series EMPIRE debuting on FOX this Wednesday January 7th, 2015.
I got to see an early screening of the first episode of Empire on a big screen here in Atlanta. The room was packed with well dressed black people of different ages, shades, genders and sexual orientations. Very nice crowd. Having said that, there are some gay scenes in the show and (you guessed it) the majority of the crowd didn’t like it.
Anytime the gay character did anything “gay” the uncomfortable groans sang out like a black church choir in the Bible belt south. More on that later.
The series focuses on a music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) who discovers he has a progressively crippling disease and must leave his “empire” to one of his three sons: Andre, Jamal and Hakim (Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray). Why he can’t just give them all an equal split of ownership is never discussed. The competition aspect and all of the subsequent backstabbing makes for better television, I guess.
Added to the mix is Lucious’ fiery ex-wife and company co-founder, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) who is just released from a 10+ year prison stint as the series begins. Her abrasive, streetwise personality clashes with everyone else’s upper class sensibility on the screen, giving the show much needed life.
To be honest, this is Taraji P. Henson’s show. She steals every scene, not for the sassiness of her character but for how she manages to get us instantly on the woman’s side, despite her sassiness.
I repeat, Taraji P. Henson is this show. Hands down.
Without her, there would be no show.
Most importantly to this website, the show prominently features a black gay character. One of Lucious Lyon and Cookie’s sons, Jamal Lyon, is (sort of) openly gay. He’s an aspiring musician that is gay to family and friends but not be Out to the general public.
I’m not exactly sure how that’s even possible, to be honest. Imagine if Diddy’s son was known to be gay by his entire family/friends and living with a white lover…would that be a secret in today’s world of TMZ, Twitter and gossip bloggers?
MediaTakeOut and Bossip would be all over Jamal Lyon if he were a real person. Especially given who his long-term, live-in partner is…
So let’s discuss that, Jamal is dating a white man.
As a matter of fact, every black person on the show is dating a white person or an EXTREMELY light skinned black person. I’m not one to normally care about the light skin/dark skin and interracial dating outrage that many black gay men seem to fret over. But the casting choices on this show do seem perplexing in a series about the world of Hip Hop music.
Does this visually prove the point that detractors of interracial dating have made about “black self worth” in the comments section here on Cypher Avenue?
Just being real, look at the main cast photo.
The entire main cast is pretty much on the lighter shade of black. Hell, I even think Taraji P Henson was lightened for this official photo.
The darkest people of note are Malik Yoba and Gabourey Sidibe, both are (so far) secondary characters who may or may not have significant roles as the series progresses.
Granted, light skinned black people are STILL black people (and counts as diversity, kudos to FOX). Also, it makes sense that the lighter Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson would produce light skinned children, unlike The Cosby Show which infamously did the opposite.
However, even I had to pause at the lack of melanin on the screen, especially given this show is about a very successful American black family. I mean, even biracial (son of a white woman) President Obama has more color in the White House with his brown to dark skinned wife and daughters.
Look, its not a big deal. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. [Editor’s Note: For the record, the writer of this article is brown skinned. Just putting that out there.]
This show isn’t here to make a statement on blackness and the diversity of blackness. Also, tons of black people are now working on a network television series about a black family. That is a good thing and commenting on the complexion of the characters/actors is really just nitpicking.
Especially given that, on a whole, I actually enjoyed the pilot.
EMPIRE is an effective mix of Soap Opera and the Music Industry world of Hip Hop that will resonate with a large audience. Nitpicking aside, the show does offer a welcome dose of diversity in not only race but also sexuality. And sexuality plays a large part of this show so far.
The gay character Jamal and his sexuality are featured prominently in the first episode. Thankfully its not from the perspective of being “down low” or “looking for love.” Instead its about his struggle with gaining acceptance from his father and also from the general public as a musician. Through flashbacks we see what is was like for Jamal as a little boy, when his parents knew even way back then that he would be gay.
The only complaint I have with the way Jamal’s homosexuality is handled was: To visually reveal to his parents that their child was homosexual, the show has him dress up in his mother’s high heels and purse as a joke at a big house party during a flashback.
As if being gay automatically meant you want to be (or pretend to be) a woman. As if heterosexual men and teens have never dressed up in women’s clothing as a joke or entertainment for multiple people.
Going back to my screening experience in Atlanta, this scene brought about the most disappointing groans from the crowd, seeing the boy wearing high heels and a purse. I will note that the father Lucious’ abusive over-reaction to this revelation about his son garnered very little verbal disapproval. Almost as if they were calculating whether the character was in the right to have that type of reaction, given the circumstances.
The homophobia in the show itself, so far, has been handled pretty well. Unlike some idealistic situations portrayed by many gay films, series and web shows, the world of EMPIRE is not super accepting of the whole black gay thing. Especially in the world of Hip Hop music.
On the other hand, I did like the contrasting touch that the younger hyper-masculine, heterosexual son Hakim is very close with his fellow talented gay brother. I also like seeing outcast Taraji P. Henson character Cookie being very accepting of her homosexual offspring…having said that, even she calls him a “Faggot” at one point. But even Jamal calls himself a “Sissy” so go figure.
The main thing that sinks music based hip-hop shows like this is the music itself. Fortunately, Daniels’ brought on producer Timbaland to supervise the production of all of the songs and it sounds like they got their money’s worth. Everything sounds pretty great and natural, not as if it were created by generic Hollywood sound composers.
Added to that the main cast is pretty talented with chemistry and good looks. The actors playing the sons of CEO Lucious Lyon are all very attractive.
Back in May, I asked 4 questions at the end of my original post about the show, long before I saw the series. Now that I’ve seen the first episode, here are the answers to my own questions:
Does the show look interesting?
Yes, with the cast and Hip Hop premise of the show, there’s no way that I wouldn’t want to see this. Having seen it, I would watch at least one or two more episodes. It isn’t the most original or hard hitting story out there, but it definitely surpassed my original low expectations for it.
Will the black gay character be accurately represented?
Disregarding the laughable idea that the black musician son of a multimillion dollar music empire could be openly gay to everyone in his family, his father’s company and live with his white lover yet not be Out to the rest of the world…yeah, ignoring all that, I would say he’s represented well.
At no point was he “Sassy”, “Shade Throwing” or “Snapping his fingers,” even as a joke.
I would have loved to see a non-womanly revelation to him being gay in the flashback, however I understand there are only so many ways to visually convey that without going as far as showing the child being sexual with another boy.
Will this be the successor to The L.A. Complex for black gay men?
Nope. There was something about Andra Fuller’s portrayal of Kaldrick King that made it addictive to see. Added to the fact that the gay character is booed up with a white man, no sir. Black gay men are not having that.
Will we actually watch the show on television instead of bootlegged YouTube edits featuring only the gay storyline?
Probably, so far from what I’ve seen there’s no way to really split the “gay” storyline from the rest of the show. Tons of scenes were about Jamal even when Jamal wasn’t on the screen. This show will sink or swim by the ratings alone.
Having said all that, I definitely recommend for everyone to check out at least the first episode when it debuts Wednesday, January 7th on FOX. Afterward, immediately come back here and let us know what you thought about the show.
Did the lack of melanin in the main cast matter to you?
Was the gay character and his situation realistic?
Did Taraji P. Henson kill it or did she not?
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