I meet any Lee Daniels-related project with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. If nothing else, Daniels is sure to provoke, but that interest is either piqued by the power of the story and performances (Precious) or the sheer spectacle unfolding before you (Shadowboxer, The Paperboy). So, when it was announced that Daniels would be at the helm of Empire, a drama about a drug dealer turned music mogul, I couldn't help but wonder what direction the director would go in.
Based on the pilot, the show takes cues from Shakespeare as well as classic TV melodramas like Dynasty and Dallas. Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) serves as patriarch and overall centerpiece. He's an ex-drug dealer and recording artist that’s gone on to find greater riches as a mogul. Think Jay Z, only with Frankie Lymon’s perm.
Lyon is working to take his record label public, though when it comes to the future of the company he's uncertain as to which of his three sons should take control. His trepidation is heightened by his sudden diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. So, like King Lear, he makes his sons—Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray)—compete for the crown.
On paper, Andre is the most qualified candidate, but he is not, as Lucious makes clear, a celebrity and, according to Lucious, one must be a name to be the face of Empire Entertainment. As for Hakeem, he's a "more talented Roscoe Dash," but there may not be a Master P in him. Then there's Jamal, who is gay—a major source of contention between father and son. Jamal is in the running by virtue of birth order, but his father resents him for what he feels is a lifestyle choice.
In one scene, there's a flashback to Lucious tossing a very young Jamal into the trash can for daring to display an overt femininity.
All of this makes for an interesting enough premise, but what really draws you into the pilot, and what the coming weeks will bring, is Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy, Hustle & Flow, I Can Do Bad All By Myself). Henson plays Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie, who is fresh out of jail after 17 years and itching to collect what she's owed: half of Empire Entertainment.
Cookie is the most interesting, vibrant, and lived-in character on the show, though that's mostly a testament to Henson's talent than anything else. She adds colors and layers and nuance to a character that, if played by someone else, might’ve been nothing more than a loud mouth, that bitter ex with a fresh post-prison weave ponytail.
That is one complaint I have about Empire: Some of it sounds like hip-hop through the lens of someone who hasn’t kept up with the genre, not to mention the music industry at large.
There's a line in which Lucious claims that part of the reason he's taking the company public is to show a new generation of poor kids with dreams of music stardom that they can still make money. But is that really the case in the age of illegal downloading? See: TLC, and many, many Bad Boy artists of the 1990s who earned millions upon millions and still ended up with unpaid pay-day loan credit scores.
And while I certainly applaud the inclusion of a gay black male character, I cringed hearing Jamal say to his boyfriend, about his father, "He’d never pick me. Too much homophobia in the black community."
It’s a shame that a gay black director-writer would use his medium to perpetuate the idea that black people are more homophobic than other groups. Worse, Jamal says this to his non-black boyfriend. If Lee Daniels wanted to lead by example, he could’ve used his show to do so. As of now, there's a dearth of shows in which a gay black male character is romantically linked to another gay black male. I believe in miscegenation—it gave us Mariah Carey—but how does one take shots at black people for being more homophobic than others, yet doesn’t show the world what two same sex black folks look like as a couple?
Like Henson, Jussie Smollet does a superb job with the script he's been given, but if the intent is to be progressive with this narrative, the writing should be progressive too.
Complaints aside, Daniels did a good job of showcasing what looks to be hip-hop’s best new soap opera. Explicitly fictional one, anyway. No shade to VH1.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.