This show is everything.
I've been saying that a lot lately, which is great. Which means that I can finally break out of my reality TV spell, and get back into a handful of great scripted programs. It started with "Being Mary Jane," continued with "Scandal," went on to "How to Get Away with Murder," and now keeps keepin' on, with the hit television show "Empire," that just debuted earlier this year on FOX.
I'm a sucker for a predominantly Black cast, Black writers/directors, and grew up watching and enjoying, and being inherently interested in their career paths and progression. I can't help but support the familiar faces and entertaining antics. Naturally, these shows were made for me.
The best part about these quote-unquote "Black" shows it that everyone is digging them. Not just Black female writers, like myself. Not just "urban" folks in "inner cities" who can relate. But these shows are clearly transcending racial and cultural lines, and appealing to everyone who loves a good story in general. That's the best part...while they speak to me/"us" directly as Blacks...they are also speaking to the television-watching audience as a whole because they are GOOD SHOWS. Period.
This speaks volumes for where our current generation is in terms of acceptance and awareness, on a very basic, basic level. Entertainment is often a microcosm of society at large, in terms of trends and influence, and the emergence of these shows is a great example of how Black representation is hardly an anomaly anymore. It's pretty much the norm.
Yeah, people were still vex about the movie Selma not receiving appropriate recognition from the Academy Awards this year. And yes, I'm sure the roles (and power roles on the executive levels) in Hollywood are still barely diverse, BUT it is a step in the right direction. An evident one. The ratings, the buzz, and the critical acclaim are proving that change is happening. We can feel it...and we can see it. Daily. Regularly.
I dig the thought processes and complexities of Gabrielle Union as Mary Jane Paul on "Being Mary Jane." I love the feisty and strategic Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington on "Scandal." Viola Davis as the wickedly brilliant Annalise Keating is super fun to watch on "How to Get Away with Murder," and now I have another show to add to my roster of weekly entertainment..."Empire."
What is it about this show that speaks to me in particular?
1) TARAJI P. HENSON - What's not to love about Taraji? She is the co-star of one of my favourite movies of all times, Baby Boy (2001), and has also won my admiration from her roles in Hustle & Flow (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award in 2009), and Think Like a Man. I think her character Cookie Lyon is hilarious, and although some might argue that she's in a stereotypically negative black female role as an ex-con with a history of drug chargers...but I love that despite this setback, her character is emerging into a powerful business woman, and complicated woman. Most importantly, it's just great to watch her get moment to shine in the spotlight, because she has been acting for years and it's well deserved. Not everyone gets the change to be the "it girl" of the big, or small screen, but this is definitely Taraji's moment, and it's nice to see.
2) TERRENCE HOWARD - Again, another actor I've watched and enjoyed over the years, from his hilarious character in the The Best Man pictures, to various music video appearances, and excellent roles in movies like Crash (2004), Ray (2004), and of course Hustle & Flow (2005). Like Taraji, he's someone who's been around the big and little screen for years, but is finally getting attention on a wider scale, and you can't help but feel proud of the brother. He is awesome as Luscious Lyon, and definitely brings a depth and familiarity to the "hip hop mogul" star character on the show. Will I mention the numerous assault issues he's had in the past...no, I won't. I'll keep it positive and separate the art from his personal fiascos.
3) THE CAST - So great to see newcomers Trai Byers (Andre Lyon), Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon), Bryshere Gray (Hakeen Lyon), and of course old favourites Malik Yoba, Derek Luke, and Gabourey Sidibe in supporting roles. These ensemble casts really make the episodes a must-see affair, because you can see how many A-list stars (like Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love) have committed themselves to the project and believe in its impact.
4) THE STORY OF A GENERATION - The premise of Empire is loosely based on Shakespeare's King Lear, and also influenced by the 80s primetime soap opera Dynasty, according to show creator/director Lee Daniels. Empire is the story of a generation, with various themes and characters reminding us of the faces and names we've watched develop over the years. It speaks directly to the "hip hop" generation that came directly from the streets, and through years of hustling, performing, creative excellence, and changing of times, have now emerged to millionaires, power movers, and icons. This is a familiar story as we watch various hip hop artists, and even the very actors themselves transcend their initial circumstances, and become staples in pop culture. This story wouldn't have worked 10-15 years ago, because not everyone had matured to that level of fame and riches. But we see it now with Diddy. With Beyonce and Jay-Z. With Dr. Dre. We see the power increasing exponentially, and the stories of these hip hop and urban cultural pioneers turning into Forbes cover stories, and business models. It's fabulous.
5) THE MUSIC - Produced by the legendary hit-maker Timbaland, the music on this show is current, authentic, and actually sounds GOOD. It makes the entire concept very believable when the hits actually sounds like potential hits. And tell me you don't catch yourself humming "you're so beautifuuuuullll..." as a result, every now and then?
6) IDEALS OF FAMILY LEGACY - This concept is fabulous to me. Because as the "hip hop" generation comes of age, matures, has children and grandchildren, you can't help but wonder what's next? Will the money be preserved? Will future businesses unfold? Will the legacy continue? We see the children of some moguls (like the Simmons) come into their own, and the history of influence and talent continue. You can only hope that this is the case across the board, that millions are wisely invested, and care is taken to ensure that the legacy is intact, and that the following generation only makes it strong. Again, but mirroring the current climate, it is a great look into the question of...what's next?...for those in a similar position. Who will be the next generation of influencers, and will they be able to successfully translate their parents' achievements into something equally (or more) profitable and enjoyable? I love that this is the main premise to the show, and hope that it encourages viewers of lesser means to also be cognisant of this reality...
7) THE JOKES - Taraji as Cookie is pretty damn funny. Love it.
8) THE FAMILIARITY - The cultural references are fabulous. It is everything I love about writing: familiar experiences, similar culture, understandable language and thought processes. It is a great way to recognize the current state of entertainment, and 20 years down the line will be extremely reflective of today's reality. It is so current that it's practically truth...the Lyons family could easily be Diddy's family, Snoop's family, Kobe or Lebron's family...it's just the place that young "stars" are in right now as they're suddenly not so young, and recognizing that the culture keeps moving, and they need to do everything they can to ensure they remain powerful and influential.
9) THE HYPE - I wouldn't have even tuned in if it wasn't for the buzz. "Everybody" was talking about Empire, so when I finally caught the episodes through a binge watching-spree, I was hooked.
10) WHAT IT REPRESENTS - Empire represents a new era of television, and the "return" of Black shows. The last great surge of Black television was probably in the 90s when shows like Martin, Living Single, the Cosby Show, A Different World, Sister Sister, the Jamie Foxx Show, Roc, and Moesha (to name a few) were a hit on the airwaves. The half hour laugh-a-minute sitcom was huge, and I definitely miss being able to tune in and get consistent jokes from the actors that I still love and admire...but the turn to a one-hour drama is great as well. It represents the change from the Black comedian (and there were dozens of them) to a great variety of interesting and complex characters. The change is nice. The depth is nice. And you don't have to worry about getting hung up on one particular depiction, because there are enough characters to go around. With varying personalities and passions, the accessible Black characters on television are truly just a common thing now. Nothing particularly racial or controversial going on...just another show, another cast, and another look at American life.
I'm all about documenting our cultural experiences, for future accurate representations of our generation. This show is spot on. Well done, Lee Daniels!
And P.S...I don't believe for a minute that Monique was the "original" contender for the role of Cookie. She needs to sit down, and let Taraji have her moment to shine. Unnecessary shade on a wonderful pop cultural moment. Who does that?!
Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.