Black people love Empire because this is the first time we have ever seen a big budget soap opera on a broadcast network that focused on a Black family.
Much like Dallas (1978-1991) and Dynasty (1986-1991), both of which aired over 30 years ago, Empire tells the story, or stories, of a wealthy (Black) family like sibling rivalry, divorce, a crazy ex, and other battles for intra family power. In the first episode, Lucious Lyon informs his sons that he will select one of them to run the family business and that they are in direct competition with each other. In case you missed it, Andre says explicitly, “What is this? We King Lear now?” Yes. Empire is what you get when Black people blend King Lear and Dallas.
Furthermore, Empire tells these stories against a background of Black stereotypes. In this sense, Empire fits within the genre of Blaxploitation.
Blaxploitation is both a production strategy and a genre. In the 1960s, mainstream (read: White) audiences were buying fewer movie tickets, so in order to tap alternative (read: Black) audiences, White filmmakers made “Black” films. These films featured a majority Black cast and stereotypical content. This genre, along with the soap opera, are often considered “low culture” due to its audience (i.e., low-income Black people and women respectively) and perceived lack of artistic merit.
Despite its capitalistic history, contrived characters, and stereotypical dialogue, Black audiences found satisfaction in Blaxploitation films; they could see Black people on screen as main characters with dynamic lives that unfolded over time. Blaxploitation emerged as a viable business strategy, and Black filmmakers created films for major production houses that retained the appearances of stereotypical Blackness, while embedding real stories about the Black experience.
I love the subversive, but not-so-subtle, way in which Empire discusses different representations of Blackness through a multifaceted lens, something that is indicative to the best Blaxploitation films. In episode 2, “The Outspoken King,” Lucious must defend hip hop from accusations of inciting violence, a reductive argument that is common in cultural discourse; while frustratingly prepping for a Nancy Grace knockoff program, he says, “I got to go on white TV and try and talk in a way that don’t frighten these folks to death.” Calling out “mainstream” TV as “white” TV is a perfect example of Lee Daniels drawing attention to the interplay between a hegemonic White lens and an alternative Black lens.
Furthermore, this dual consciousness is also present in the characters themselves. In most mainstream programming, people of color are deployed as stereotypical tokens for comic relief; alternatively, Empire deploys and comments on Black stereotypes, while simultaneously featuring detailed characters that go beyond popular understandings of Blackness using the long-form, complex narrative style of soap operas.
We have the OG stereotype of the music mogul in Lucious Lyon, the womanizing rapper who is confused and enraged by his own masculinity in Hakeem Lyon, the jezebel mulatto caught between worlds in Anika, and of course the angry Black woman in Cookie Lyon.
At the same time, we have the gay singer-songwriter in Jamal Lyon, and the ivy league graduate who struggles to balance the expectations of his family and his own manic depressive illness in Andre Lyon. Both of these sons demonstrate counter-stereotypical representations of Black males, and, in both cases, this alternative Blackness is a wedge in the father-son relationship. Finally, we have a heavy set, dark skinned fabulous assistant who won’t let her size keep her from amazing fashion and love scenes in Becky Williams.
Empire deploys these stereotypes, and invites the viewer to consider the deeper motivations and desires of the character, thus putting meat on the bone of these weak narrative tropes and creating robust figures with which viewers can identify and empathize.
Lucious Lyon is not only a rapper-turned-mogul, detached selfish father stereotype; we see his battle with his mother’s manic depression and the construction of his alter ego as a coping strategy. Hakeem Lyon is a caricature of masculinity, so much so that he doesn’t even understand his own motivations; he convinced of his own alpha male status, and can never be wrong, but he embodies the exact flaws in American expectations of masculinity.
Which brings me to Cookie Lyon. Full disclosure: I’m #TeamCookie all the way. Prior to Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, and Empire, 62% of Black women on primetime television shows were featured in comedies, 16% in reality program, and only 14% in dramas (NOTE: 7% in action programs; Signorielli, 2009). This lack of representation in drama means that viewers have not had the opportunity to go on emotional journeys with Black female characters, to see their highs and lows, to laugh and cry with them, and to understand their motivations.
More importantly, Cookie doesn’t shy away from being an angry Black woman; she will make sure you know why she is angry. She spent 17 years in prison, separated from her 3 young sons and the husband for whom she would die. When she got out of prison, her husband was a changed man, sleeping with a younger woman and singlehandedly running a company that her blood, sweat, tears, and time helped create. The world that she dominated before prison changed and she is struggling to find her place in it, rekindle her relationship with her sons, and figure out who she is as a person without Lucious as a partner. Truth be told, you’d be angry too.
I love Empire because it is the manifestation and actuation of my research regarding representation. In graduate school, my work focused on the psychological effects of media representation; in short, I found that not seeing members of your racial group in media results in more negative emotion, specifically anger, frustration, and sadness, and this effect is present regardless of racial group. Being represented in media, even if it is occasionally stereotypical or problematic, confirms the existence and value of our groups from a societal perspective and, in short, makes us feel good about ourselves. As expressed in the song, “Powerful,” by Jamal Lyon and Sky Summer: “I matter. You matter. We matter.”