Fox’s new television series “Empire” jumps out as the “Glee” of the hip-hop world. Yes, “Glee”. While there are not many cheerleaders, football players and cheerleader coach from hell with incredible voices, cliches run amok in “Empire”. The characters particularly Jamal and Hakeem break out into song every few scenes. And yes, power, sex, drugs, violence and homophobia are all central plot. Yes, all hip-hop stereotypes. But there are a few bright spots to the show.
Fox’s new hip-hop drama, Empire begins with Cookie Lyon (played by Taraji P. Henson), a mother of three who has spent 17 years in jail coming home to reclaim what is hers. Cookie took the fall for then-husband Luscious Lyon, a drug dealer turned rapper turned successful music mogul. Cookie wants a piece of the company that her imprisonment built. Luscious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard), driven by his mortality as he’s dying from ALS, wants the brothers to compete for the company.
The oldest son, Andre (played by Trai Byers) devoted his life to his father’s company. He interned as a kid while earning an MBA from Stanford. But he’s a business man not a musician. Luscious has apprehensions about giving the company to one that is not a musician. Jamal (played by Jussie Smollett), the middle son is a talented songwriter, arranger and singer and also gay. While he’s out to his family, he’s not out publicly. Hakeem (played by Bryshere Gray), the youngest son, while talented is lazy and only cares about ‘money, hoes and clothes,’ the hip-hop way.
But Hakeem is his father’s favorite son. Knowing this Andre and his wife devise a scheme that would pit his brothers against each other to ultimately be named the winner. Luscious as Hakeem’s manager and Cookie as Jamal’s manager sets a stage for a all-out war between the parents and the brothers even though they are best friends and supportive of each others’ careers.
Most are heralding that the show has a gay central character, but LGBT characters on prime time aren’t new. But a black one is. The dialogue is often crass, but it’s honest especially in the black community. While Cookie accepts her son as is, Luscious is the stereotypical homophobic Alpha male. In a flashback Jamal walks in the living room with high heels and scarf on his head. Sending his father into a rage, he grabs Jamal and throws him a garbage can. Cookie grabs him out while hollering and kicking at Luscious.
While she loves Jamal unconditionally, her love for her other two sons are in question. Maybe as a mother she feels she has to protect Jamal from his father or the society-at-large. Her competition with Luscious is overshadowing her love for her family (or at least all of her sons). But it’s Henson’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon that shows emotional depth. Maybe there’s more to Cookie than meets the eye. Her confrontational exchanges with Luscious’s new wife, Anika Calhoun (played by Grace Gealey) is both hilarious and tragic.
And Empire is definitely politically incorrect. Cookie and Luscious both use the words faggot and sissy in reference to Jamal and/or his boyfriend, Michael. Upon meeting Michael, Cookie calls him a ‘lil Mexican’. And in another episode she calls him Michelle instead of Michael. While Lee Daniels thinks it is okay for Cookie to use these words because of her unconditional love for Jamal, others may object. Words still hurt. Instead of going to war with Luscious, maybe Cookie should focus bringing her family together.
And after seeing a few episodes Lee Daniels is making it his crusade to expose homophobia in the black community. Yes, there’s homophobia in the black community, but there’s homophobia in every community. We disagree that this is taught in most African-American and Latino households. There are black families that are on the other side of that spectrum. Since Lee Daniels has this vendetta against homophobia in the black community, maybe next season he will focus on the racism in the LGBTQ community.