In Defense of Empire, Black Images and Nuance

Image matters!  I agree!  Race matters!  Absolutely! African-Americans don’t have much power in Hollywood. Check.

The images of black folk in television and film has been both marginalized and groundbreaking.  From Bert Williams, Bill Robinson, George Walker, Hattie McDaniel,  Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, to Ron O’Neal, Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Diahanne Carroll, Richard Roundtree, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, our images have fit most every possible dynamic.  I am conscious of the image game.  I care about how black folk are portrayed.  If you can’t read any of the dozens of books available on the subject, Spike Lee’s somewhat satirical film, “Bamboozled,” covers the darker history and current struggles in how black images are portrayed.  It’s important to know this history. It is with this in mind that I approach the subject of critics like Dr. Boyce Watkins.  He’s been going in hard via social media and news shows like CNN to criticize Fox’s smash drama, Empire.  Watkins went as far as describing the performances of stars Terrance Howard and Taraji P Henson as ‘coonery.’  I can’t think of a harsher criticism for an African-American to receive from another.  As a social critic and an avid watcher of Empire,  I find his choice of words reprehensibly irresponsible.

I admit that initially when I first saw previews of Empire before it premiered, I was skeptical.  The heavy rotation of promos weeks ahead focused on the glitz and glamour of the music industry, the debonair persona of Luscious Lyon, (Howard) and the powerful hurricane that is Cookie Lyon, (Henson).  My skepticism had everything to do with the history of the so called, “black drama” on network television and the recent phenomenon of other shows appearing on networks like BET.  I worried that Empire would be Fox”s version of a pseudo Kardashian-like program that focuses on the most simple minded of viewers.  It was the reputations of both Howard and Henson that convinced me to at least view the show before writing it off.  My respect for Henson in particular convinced me that she would not participate in a show that didn’t have substance just for a paycheck.  After a full season culminating in a special 2 hour finale, my gut reasoning was on point.

Surrounded by Henson and Howard, the cast is set around mostly unknown actors and actresses.  Astute viewers noticed how these newcomers’ performances improved as the season progressed under the direction of Lee Daniels.  While it’s premature to project the future for Bryshere Gray, (Hakeem Lyon)  Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon) and Trai Byers (Andre Lyon) they’ve blended into a believably legitimate family to surround a television drama.  Adding veterans like Malik Yoba and later Derek Luke added more star power to balance the new talent.  Daniels was careful not to let veteran actors like Luke, outshine the rookies, which is genius.

It’s hard to comment on a man’s agenda, or where his heart is on a matter.  Watkins, the self described ‘people’s scholar‘ has been a cultural critic for years.  He seems to spend half his time attacking racism in mainstream America, and the other time criticizing other black folk and or black culture that he feels falls into dangerous stereotypes.  His visceral zeal against Empire seems to be more personal.  In an article he wrote for allhiphop.com, Watkins rants about Daniels’ homosexuality and Jamal’s homosexual character.

I also have a few things to say about Lee Daniels and his admitting that he’d like to use the show to “blow the lid off of homophobia in the black community.” I’m not sure why black people are always the target of this kind of propaganda, especially when there are millions of white conservatives who have their own issues with homosexuality as well.  Not to say that any of us should be forced into a position on gay rights or that we can even agree on what it means to be homophobic, but black people do not have a monopoly on homophobia, however it is defined.

But wait, there’s more…

Basically, “Empire” wasn’t created to entertain black people (although I’m sure it has black viewers).  It is instead selling an image of blackness to a predominantly white audience that has been long fed stereotypical messages about what blackness represents.  These thug-gangster-hoodrat images are the ones that are deeply embedded in the minds of police officers who shoot black men and potential employers who refuse to give black people jobs.  Just like animals in the zoo, the world loves to observe black people at our most ratchet, because ignorant negroes are simply fun to watch.

Empire

I don’t know how to describe this throw up of hyperbole beyond ridiculous.  Perhaps Watkins believes every television show or movie with black people in them should be like NBC’s Cosby show. *Imagine the irony of THAT!  He talks about being fans of Howard’s and Henson’s work previously.  I’m trying to figure out whether he’s referring to when Howard played DJay, a Memphis pimp and aspiring rap star in Hustle and Flow, or Henson’s as one of his whores?  Perhaps it was when she played Yvette, a single mother with a convicted felon for an ex boyfriend in Baby Boy.  Both performances were some of their best work.

Chances are black people we will never have control of Hollywood.  Chris Rock detailed who has the power to ‘green light’ a show.  Still, each show should be judged based it’s content can bear the brunt of it’s own praise or criticism.  Judging a show with a lack of nuance as Watkins does is not only unintelligent, it’s dangerous.  Art, even black art’s purpose is not meant to change social thought and carry cultural burdens to save a people.  Second, police are not shooting unarmed black boys and men because of a television show.  If Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier – two of the most positive and powerful actors in the history of film couldn’t stop lynchings, then how in the hell are Howard and Henson supposed to protect Michael Brown or Eric Garner by not starring in Empire?  Is Watkins that naive?  Or he just an old bitter black man?  Art is being able to enjoy Denzel Washington portraying Silas Tripp in Glory as well as Alonzo Harris in Training Day.

White folks can be as honorable or as ‘ratchet’ as they want to be on television.  They play cops, doctors, gangsters, idiots, bigots, whores and so forth.  No show is indicative of the entire Caucasian, Italian, or Chinese population.  Shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad aren’t apologizing about a damn thing; Nor should they. Equally true, black folk like myself, are nuanced enough to watch both Eyes On The Prize and Empire without expecting one to be the other.

There are shows, movies, and music that deserve our critique because of negativity, or more importantly lack of creativity.  Empire is not one of them.  It’s well written and wildly entertaining.  It doesn’t try to be what it’s not.  Watkins wouldn’t know that as he claims he doesn’t watch the show.  What kind of of ‘scholar’ comments so feverishly on a subject matter he has little knowledge of?

Perhaps the repressed and uptight scholar should eat some “Cookies” so he can smile and lighten up a bit.  Regardless, I can’t wait till next season!

 

 

 

 

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