10 Reasons Why 'Empire' is the Blackest Show on TV (and I Love It)

by Diana Veiga

Like millions of other people out there, I have gotten hooked on Fox’s hit TV show Empire. I mean how could I not? It has all the things a guilty pleasure show must have: quick quips and one liners; over the top and nonsensical plot lines; catchy hip hop and R&B tracks with Timbaland-influenced booming bass and beats; and the one, the only, the always incomparable Cookie played by Taraji P. Henson.

I am in front of my television every Wednesday night, with a Henny and Coke in hand (because I’m sure Cookie rocks with the brown liquor), ready for the antics and shenanigans to ensue. By the time the roller coaster of a show is over and I’ve gotten to next week’s previews, I still have no clue what will happen next because the drama is just that over-the-top.

It’s safe to say I love this show.

But I mostly love the show because it is the Blackest non-reality show on television right now. While Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder have Black female leads who might show us a sliver of the Black (female) experience, they aren’t “Black” shows. Empire, however, is all Black everything. And then just when you think it’s too much, they double down on the blackness. In between these plot lines that are supposed to encompass the “human experience”, they seem to be giving Black folks, “But for real though, we real Black.” (Insert: wink and the gun.)

Seriously, the other day I tweeted that Empire is basically a telenovela for Black folks. So let’s do a quick rundown of all the ways this show is oh-so-totally Black. This list does contain spoilers, so please don’t read any further if you’re not all caught up on the latest foolishness.

  1. Black people—Black fathers of Black gay sons especially—are stereotyped as the most homophobic people on the planet. Apparently, if you let Lee Daniels and his people tell it. I know that Daniels is pulling from his own life experiences as a gay Black man and is trying to teach us tolerance, but he seems to be working overtime to make everything a teachable moment. Of course Lucious is homophobic and therefore wary of giving his gay son the keys to the kingdom. Isn’t every Black man? Well, that’s what we are supposed to think at least. Daniels has certainly ramped things up on the Blackness meter by making Lucious’ homophobia (and by extension all of Black America, let him tell it) a major plot point.
  2. The middle son, Jamal, is gay… yet somehow he was forced to marry a woman (played by Raven Symoné) who shows up with a child in tow and that she claims is his. Now, maybe they couldn’t fit a DNA test in the mix because that would ruin the flow, but everyone went from, “That can’t be Jamal’s baby!” to the baby living in the house with a fully decorated room. All those millions and nobody could afford to swab the baby’s cheek? The best part was in the “Unto the Breach” episode when Cookie came barging through the house, the little girl said, “Hey, grandma,” like she hadn’t just met Cookie a few days ago. (Who knows how much time has passed in TV land?) Cookie didn’t miss a beat and replied, “Hey, baby, where’s your granddaddy?” Just like Black folks; you know we will take in some babies and raise them as our own. You’ll be thinking that’s your cousin/brother/auntie until years later a drunk relative drops the truth bomb at a family reunion: “They ain’t even really family.” 
  3. The show uses all of our vernacular. In the same “Unto the Breach” episode where Cookie comes in with guns blazing and looking for Boo Boo Kitty, she said, “Bye, Felicia,” “finna” (as in, “I’m finna run to the store!”), and “bama” (DC, stand up!) all within the first two minutes. Where else will you get this mix of new slang and old school Black vernacular in one show, out of the same person’s mouth? You won’t.
  4. Cookie is a throwback to the golden era of "ghetto fabulous." Cookie is basically who I envision Lil’ Kim would be if she had been in jail a wee bit longer and hadn’t gotten so much plastic surgery. Since Cookie has gotten out of jail, she has consistently rocked animal print and furs. Usually at the same damn time. (Plus a bomb weave of course.) She is a Bad Boy Entertainment music video circa 1997. Or even more apt, she is Puff Daddy’s mama, Janice Combs. Just without the blonde wig. 
  5. Everyone's wig/weave game is on point. Can we talk about Gabourey Sidibe’s weave? Love it or hate it, we all know a Black woman who is quick to throw some blonde highlights, color, or weave in her hair and rock the hell out if it like it’s hers. And she will dare you to say something about it.
  6. Well, maybe not everyone's… While we are on the subject of hair, the spirit compels me to point out Derek Luke’s runaway slave side part. Need I say more? Didn’t think so.
  7. Even the guest stars are showing out with scene-stealing performances. From Porsha (Ta’Rhonda Jones), the always-got-something-to-say assistant; to Cookie’s truth telling sister (played by the one and only Tasha Smith), who schooled Cookie about her real kids vs. Cookie’s rich kids; to the Philly goon Cookie hired and basically paid with a carry out wings and fries combo to kill a drug kingpin – they bring extra flavor to the screen with their personas, line delivery, actions, and tip the scales to the Black side.
  8. The show gets even the most minute details of Blackness accurate. Now this one is easy to miss – I myself had to press pause and lean in for a good look. However, in the “Our Dancing Days” episode right before Lucious and Cookie were about to rekindle their relationship, Cookie puts her hand to his face and you can see that she is wearing a Band-Aid on a finger that was missing an acrylic nail. Now, I don’t know if this is truly method acting and getting into character, but Taraji nailed it (see what I did there?) with that one because we all know the Band-Aid is the Black girl’s go-to when she can’t get to the nail shop in time for a new fill-in.
  9. Lucious ain't shy about the "look back." That time Lucious told Cookie, “Thanks, baby,” and she asked if had checked with Boo Boo Kitty on that. He laughed, called her his baby mama, and then he did the look back at her booty. Yeah, we all know about the look back. And we all saw her put a little extra switch in her hips ‘cause he was watching.
  10. Cookie is Cookie and Lucious is Lucious. Oh, Cookie, what's not to love? As they say in the streets: She keeps it one hundred. (Do they still say that in the streets? No matter.) With Cookie, what you see is what you get. Even when she gave that powerful speech before the investors, she kept her hood rich self fully in tact. Lucious, however, has learned the value of code switching. Have you seen him when he’s talking to his staff in his boardroom, or to the money people, or to white people? His voice is so pleasant and non-threatening. Oh, but he turns it all the way off when he has to go off on his folks. He can go from corporate to gangsta in “fourfive” seconds. Haven’t so many of us been there? Who hasn’t had to scream, “Don’t let the bourgie fool you!” before repping their real hood self, at least once in their lifetime?
Yes, Empire has not only brought some much needed sexy back to television, but it’s brought some Black back too. And I love every bit of it.

Photo: Fox

Diana Veiga is a Spelman woman, a DC resident, and a freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to For Harriet. Of course, she’s also on Twitter.

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