While scrolling through Facebook posts on a recent Wednesday night it was apparent a new Empire truly has arisen. Not a geopolitical one, but a media one. Folk of all races and socio-economic background seem to be caught up in the phenomenon.
The new FOX television hit “Empire” has been described by media critics as: breathtaking, unprecedented and irresistible. Indeed, it’s the first show in history to have its viewership increase with each weekly episode and its season finale topped over 17 million viewers — totally dominating the highly coveted 18-49 age demographic.
Empire has been likened to an urban “King Lear” or a modern day “Dallas” or “Dynasty,” just set in the midst of a hip hop music world. Empire’s central figure, Luscious (played by Terrance Howard), has become as popularly notorious and dichotomously liked, yet hated, as “JR” Ewing was back in the heydays of the hit show Dallas. Empire’s powerful female costar, “Cookie” (Taraji P. Henson) likewise engenders respect and likability as a streetwise ex-con, who is yet complex and defies in many ways the standard stereotypes of a woman raised “in the hood.”
What gave rise to “Empire?” The show’s co-creator and director Lee Daniels (“The Butler,” “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball”) noted he began contemplating the idea of the show as he was making “The Butler.” Daniels said he wanted to create a show with a soap-opera format because it would be an excellent vehicle to “offer ways to cloak serious themes of race and class in layers of melodrama.” Societal issues, he noted, that are very important to him. Daniels and Danny Strong, “Empire’s” other creator, began to weave a “Godfather” like tale set in a culture — hip hop — that can and does resonate with audiences from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The rest, as they say, has been history.
Interestingly, “Empire” is not alone when it comes to the success of recent shows with black leads. “Scandal,” “State of Affairs” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” have been hit television shows, each with smart and powerful black women either in the lead role, or in the case of “State of Affairs,” as a co-star (black actress Alfre Woodard plays the president of the United States in this hit drama). Diversity it seems, is starting to blossom on network television.
The success of the aforementioned shows has also spurred much serious discussion. For example, some have drawn interesting parallels with the rise of these shows and that of black American women generally. According to the National Center for Education statistics, for the first time in history black females have bested every other gender and racial group in having the highest college entrance numbers. Over 50 percent of black women ages 18-24 are enrolled in college! Recent demographics also show black females represent a sizable number of those receiving graduate degrees as well.
Is it possible that shows like “Scandal,” “State of Affairs,” “How to get Away with Murder,” and even the comedy “Blackish,” with the black female costar being a doctor, are mirroring the rise of an educated, confident and strong class of black women in America? To an extent I think so.
However, I think an even more compelling question being asked is: how much does the success of these shows represent a narrowing of the racial divide in America and a greater acceptance of black culture and black presence in positions of authority and power? The answer to this, I believe, is more nuanced.
I think we need look no further than the oval office and the U.S. Attorney General’s office to find an answer. The occupiers of both positions — black men — show that while we have moved forward, intransigence is still very much present. It’s still very difficult for some people to take seeing blacks in extremely high positions of power. The vicious and venomous invectives and slights President Obama and Attorney General Holder have, and do endure, I believe, have their origins in more than just ideological differences many have with the two. Lee Daniels, “Empire’s” director and co-creator, stated quite succinctly, “I think many people are angry that he (a black man) is president.” I agree.
The rise of Empire and other shows give buoyancy to the fact that we have come a long way as a nation. There is indeed much to celebrate. Yet, recent incidents like those that have happened at the University of Oklahoma with the racist video, in which frat members gleefully and raucously advocate racial exclusion and hanging blacks from a tree, show we still have a long way to go.
Racism in America was entrenched, and codified by law for more than 300 years. We would be naïve and simplistic to think its ugliness would have disappeared in 40-plus years since the last major civil rights legislation was passed, or it can go away now if we all just ignore it and pretend as though it doesn’t exist. Like a soap opera, the drama we call life is complex, and unlike a soap opera, its problems and complexities aren’t scripted.