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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Olivia Pope does Stillwater, or the Quashing of a Scandal

Here is what common sense tells us about what happened in Lubbock, Texas over the weekend:

1: When Marcus Smart the Oklahoma State forward fell into the crowd initially, he never made contact with Jeff Orr. Smart started to retreat after Orr said something to him that was so stirring, he immediately went back to confront Orr.

2: Orr claimed that he called Smart ‘a piece of crap’ and did not use a racial slur, and yet Orr agreed to stay away from Texas Tech for several games including away games.  I’ve been to quite a few college basketball games, and I know that players are accustomed to a lot worse than ‘piece of crap.”  I don’t think that Orr would stay away from his so called favorite team if he all he did was heckle Smart.   Case in point, it’s a common occurrence for other Big 12 coaches to warn players who play against Tech about Jeff Orr specifically.  The school has known about his antics for years.  But since he gives a lot of money to the program, no one has confronted him about heckling 18-22 year olds.

smart

3.  The Big 12 made a decision about both Smart and Orr licktey split, before Monday.  If middle aged Super Booster Orr hadn’t said anything crazy, he wouldn’t have agreed to stay away from the remainder of Tech’s game.  Smart acknowledged Orr by name in his statement of remorse.  How does that happen? Tech obviously didn’t want to offend Orr and Smart took all of the heat upon himself.   The tape that was released by the Big 12 only had partial sound to it.  We only heard part of what was said not all.

I see this as a clean mop up by the Big 12 and Texas Tech.  A finely wrapped present of keeping scandal away from the school and moving on as quickly as possible.   Perhaps Olivia Pope was called and succeeded at fixing another problem.

Scandal’s Season Finale…. May Be Slipping A Little

I was late on the Scandal train.  Some friends at work got me hip to the party.  I blazed my way through the first two seasons via Netflix like my hair was on fire!   Once, my daughter came home from school and had forgotten something important in her locker.  I had to take her back.  But I was in the middle of some serious shenanigans involving Mellie at the time.  I had to pause my episode.  WTH?  I took her back like a good daddy would.  But don’t think I didn’t give her the straight business all the way there and back! I didn’t mention the show of course.  I went with the ‘being responsible’ rant instead.  #VeteranMove

Like so many, I love the show.  Shonda Rimes is a genius.  She can weave a plot and spin a narrative.  Writing good television is harder than it’s ever been before.  This is one of the reasons there are so many reality TV shows.  Not only are they cheap to produce, it doesn’t take much imagination.  Who needs a Rhimes to write a great story when you can just roll out a Kardashian, Honey Boo Boo or a Desperate Housewife in front of the camera?

When a well written show strikes gold, it creates a cult following.  Social media carries it even greater heights.  I consider myself a veteran and eclectic television show watcher.  I was Marin Tupper sitting in front of the TV set as a kid.  From Kojak and Columbo, Starsky and Hutch, and Berretta, Hill Street Blues and LA Law, The Sopranos and The Wire, The West Wing and Breaking Bad, I know good, and imaginative story telling when I see it.  The bar is higher than it’s ever been.

dream on

One of the biggest challenges for a great show with a cult following is to continue to write at the level that rocketed the popularity of the show in the first place.  Success and an abundance of praise can make writers lazy.  I’ve seen it with the best.  McNulty’s serial killer fiasco in Season 5 of The Wire come to mind.  Breaking Bad had some ridiculously unbelievable moments as well;  like Gustavo’s desert hospital on standby ready to pump his stomach after taking poison during his revenge plot.

This brings me to last night’s Season 3 finale of Scandal.  The challenge Rhimes faced, was having the ability to tie up a particular set of loose ends, while giving the viewer a taste of anticipation of what’s to come.  She had to to leave us reeling, giving us water cooler material to chop up over the next several weeks.  If not careful, the narratives can be rushed leaving the cake half baked.

This is how I viewed last nights finale:  (SPOILER ALERT)

Sally Langston’s cold blooded murder of her husband was ok.  I’ve always seen her character as a more fluent Michele Bachmann.  Her husband wanting to suddenly leave her in the wake of having a one night stand exposed with James Novack seemed lame.  But going Norman Bates on him lines up with her ambition to be president.  The fact that she called Cyrus, the man in charge of handling her political enemy instead of her own fixer didn’t make any sense.

Speaking of which, how in the hell did David Rosen’s assistant suddenly come up with an NSA link into Langston’s phone?  I knew they had to figure a way to expose that Langston was murdered.  I have no logic to explain that.

The scene at the Pentagon where Fitz and Eli went mano-a- mano was epic! The president’s insecurities made him feel desperate and powerless enough to talk sh#! about screwing Olivia; bragging about how she tasted as if Pope were a former lover rather than her father.  You would have thought it was Drake talking to Chris Brown.  Eli’s,  ‘I’m a man while you’re a boy’ rant was some of the best theater you will ever see.  It reminded me of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman going toe to tow in Crimson Tide;  Or Pacino and DeNiro at the diner in Heat.  John Morton is one helluva actor, and Rhimes let him loose on Fitz.  As far as I’m concerned, he should win an emmy for that scene alone!

Pope

One of the reasons Eli Pope could step to the President like that was because he’s was the head of  a clandestine organization (B613) whose power exceeds that of the oval office.  This makes Pope untouchable.  So how in the hell could Fitz flip the script, put Pope on the street and make Jake Ballard ‘Command?’  Jake Ballard?  Seriously?  How does that even happen?

That’s a problem!

Speaking of B613; What is Rhimes doing with Quinn Perkins?  I get that she’s a bit looney.  But her direction started to smell the moment she got involved with Charlie and foolishly got played into killing a security guard.  Hadn’t Huck taught her anything?  Further, because Huck told her she wasn’t a gladiator anymore she then goes back to Charlie?  There was nobody else in that office to talk to her before she walked out?  Don’t tell me she’s that lost after being hard core enough to rip a GPS from her chicklets!

Lastly, the plot of Olivia’s mother being a terrorist was masterful.  The fact that her and Eli are devils in their own right is fittingly and awesomely complicated.  It makes me wonder what kind of person Olivia will be down the road.  Does she have some Eli or Walter White transformational potential?

Still, towards the end the plot became sadly predictable.  I’m sitting on the couch watching the show, and I said outloud, “That plain ain’t landing in Hong Kong.”  And, “Oh, that’s Olivia’s mom calling,” all before it was revealed.  But I’m supposed to believe she shot some dudes akin to the Navy Seals, landed the plane in an abandoned air strip in Angola and made it back to Washington D.C. by episodes end?

narcisse

I’m hard on television shows.  I know it’s fantasy.  But the astute viewer will maintain a certain standard of expectation once it’s been established.  If there is too much slippage to the point of lazy pandering I will cold drop a show.  This happened most recently with Boardwalk Empire.  It has it’s share of blunders in Season 3 but it ended strong.  Season 4 was a complete fail!  The writers just started smoking crack or something.  I finished the season hoping it would recover but it didn’t.  I’m out!

I hope Shonda Rhimes hasn’t lost control of her masterpiece.  And that she doesn’t let the hype get in the way of her creative genius.

BBG C-Notes – Week Ending Sept 12-4

I know there has been a mostly serious tone in the house lately.  So let’s lighten it up a bit for the weekend while “still keepin it real.” 

First I have to give love to those in the gulf coast especially in Texas.  Thoughts and prayers to you as Ike approaches.  And now… the C-Notes.

** Memo to Orenthal – I know that up until this point you have practically been superman!  You’ve rolled like the man of steel.  You’ve been bulletproof!  But you may want to strike a deal with the prosecutor for that sting operation you pulled last year to get your gear in Vegas.  Do a lil jail time, feed the wolves and go about your way.  These white folks are NOT going to let you skate again.  The squeeze is on Juice.  Take a knee on this one.

** I am a huge Lance Armstrong fan!  Loved his book and found it quite incredible and inspirational.  Winning all those Tour De France titles was legendary – even amid all the doping speculation as well as the utter hate by the French.  You’ve won man – you proved your point!  No need to get back in the game now.  Don’t get me wrong, if anybody can do this it’s Livestrong!  But its clear that even cyclist who achieve greatness often stay a bit too long tarnishing their legacies.  This is an example of American arrogance.  Leave it be Lance!  Between your age and the fact that the whole nation will be holding fort at the airport with syringes when you get there… no way this goes good for you. 

*** Had a conversation the other day and was reminded how sweet this time of the elections would  be if Tim Russert were still with us.  He would not be letting this election distraction of Palin get by.  He would question her record and without missing a step keep John McCain’s feet to the fire.  Remember as horrible a selection as Palin is, the more people talk about her the less they talk about McCain.   He has been able to skate by on his lack of substance by putting her in the bright lights.  Many Americans are falling for this misdirection play.  Talk about lipstick on a pig….! 

***GAS GRASS (Coke) & ASS

So did you hear about the scandal involving several oil company representatives and the people they are working to have off shore drilling approved?  It seems that an investigation found that these oil executives where doing, (ahem) their own brand of off-shore drilling to the same people whose agencies offer offshore drilling leases and collects royalties.  Talk about partying like rock starts!!!  Apparently the cats at Chevron, Shell, and Hess among others really know how to “get down” with the MS Chicks!  Well at least you know why your gas prices are so…. uhhh “high”. 

*** I still can’t help but to be saddened by the fall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.  I was proud when he got elected.  I was rooting for him!  Got to see him during my one visit to Detroit and found him quite impressive.  This article from the Detoit Free Press does a good job of detailing a balanced perspective.  Kwame has flavor and charisma, and he rose at a very young age.  But the young brother got caught up and I don’t know that he can ever come back politically from this.  Stay close to your family brotha.  They will help you find peace and then pick up the pieces.

*** Big game in college football this weekend!   

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Who ya wit?!!!

“I got Southern Cal – them Big Ten teams are too slow to hang with this killa squad!”

Have a blessed weekend family~