By Ahtiya Liles


I fell in love with Empire after the second episode once I realized that they were slaying the game, and these are the 6 reasons why.

1. The single black mother narrative got turned on its head and kicked out the door. A very common narrative for black people to see portrayed is the single black mother who never needs anybody and raised her multiple children on her own without support from her children’s absentee or imprisoned father.  Empire did away with this narrative and even changed it up a bit.  Lucius raised his three sons on his own for 17 years while Cookie was away in prison. He raised his sons by himself all while creating a music empire and a legacy, and becoming a social king. And once Cookie was released from prison, Lucius (eventually) let her back into his life and they attempted to co exist for the benefit of their sons, since that was always their main priority: their children.

2. Andre has bi-polar disorder. I know this might be seen as a negative in the real world, but this definitely adds to the greatness that is Empire. The black community, as a whole, does not like to acknowledge mental illness as an actual thing.  For black people, it’s shameful to have a mental illness of any kind.  In a study done in 1996 by Mental Health America, 63% of African-Americans believed that depression is a personal weakness.  Only 31% believe that depression is an actual health problem, while 56% believe that depression is a normal side-effect of aging.  Some of the social barriers for accepting mental illness as an actual real thing are denial and embarrassment.  In a 2008 study found that more than one-third of African-Americans actively seeking treatment believe that talking about their anxiety would lead to them being called crazy.  A quarter of those surveyed felt that they could not talk about their mental health issues with their family. This distrust of the validity of mental illness is portrayed in the show, as Lucius doesn’t want to acknowledge that his eldest son needs help (for reasons that are explained later on).  Also, Empire shows how Andre, the big brother who has to keep it together for his younger brothers and father, has to cope with his mental illness and be strong.  His support system is his wife Rhonda, but he keeps just how hard he is struggling from her.  And then, at some point, the entire family is forced to deal with the fact that Andre needs help.

3. They’re rich, but not oblivious. A lot of times the narrative for successful and wealthy black people is that they suddenly forget that they are black.  What’s usually portrayed in the media is black people who are either completely conscious but struggling or completely rich but not mentioning the struggles of the black community.  For some reason, wealthy black people can’t speak out about black issues because their wealth has somehow made them invincible or excused from these issues.  Now, I’m not saying that every successful black person has to now be a spokesperson for the black community (because that would just be an annoying responsibility to put on someone), but what I am saying is that it’s nice that Empire actually addressed homophobia and police brutality.  They didn’t shy away from the topics because they’re unpopular or not inclusive.  Empire shows a very rich black family who hasn’t forgotten where they come from.  Lucius is from the hood and climbed his way up, and viewers will never forget that.  Lucius and Cookie’s end point (the empire) does not detract from their beginnings and their journey.

4. Cookie went to jail for selling drugs for the good of her family. I am in no way endorsing drugs or the selling of drugs.  I don’t think Cookie’s decision was smart, just like I don’t think Lucius should have been selling drugs in the first place.  I do recognize, however, that there are certain circumstances that force a person into certain situations, and that we are largely a product of our environment.  Cookie took the fall for Lucius dealing drugs and gave up 17 years of her life.  She gave up 17 years of seeing her sons, of being with them when they made accomplishments, and of seeing her family, all for the benefit of her three little boys.  It’s mentioned multiple times in the show’s first few episodes that Cookie took the fall for Lucius because she knew he had greatness in him.  She knew that in order for her family to rise from where they currently were in the ghettos of Philadelphia, that she had to go away to prison instead of Lucius.  Lucius had to be the one to make it out.  Cookie sacrificed herself, in a sense, because she was certain that Lucius would succeed and be able to take care of her babies better than she would have been able to if he had been the one to go to prison.  There aren’t many stories out there like Cookie’s.  When a black person is portrayed going to jail for selling drugs, they’re usually a drug addict themselves and they don’t want to take responsibility for breaking the law.  Cookie’s sacrifice was self-less.  She knew the risks she was taking, but for her and for Lucius, the possible payout was worth more than the risks.  They knew they had it in them, and they wanted a better life for them and their sons.

5. The caricatures are present, but they’re not tokens. I have a strange relationship with the idea of black caricatures.  We condemn them because they are usually the only versions of ourselves we see on TV and they’re usually accompanied by a white lead who we act as sidekick to.  In Empire, most of the characters are black, and they’re all different.  So, while, yes, in any other setting, Cookie would be the ghetto, loud mouth mother who is domineering, she’s allowed more depth to her character because she is a lead role.  Black people on Empire – if we go by the stereotypes and societal expectations that white American culture has created – are ghetto, refined, smart, stupid, loyal, trifling, sexual, modest, strong, weak, etc, etc, etc.  There are so many different character types portrayed on Empire that the ones we would normally say are caricatures are just people at this point.  They are just people who live their lives and this is how they live them, and they are able to function (most of the time) around each other.  We get to see a wide variety of black people.

6. Family always comes first, even when they’re at war with each other. The one thing that I really admire about the Lyons is their resilience and their loyalty.  For Lucius especially, he has always put his family first, including Cookie, who is the mother of his children.  For example, when Cookie and Hakeem branched off to create Lyon Dynasty, Lucius still had their backs when it came to his attention that Cookie was messing around with the same guy involved in Hakeem’s kidnapping.  There’s an understanding within that family that their business is extremely important, but not above their family.  And there are definitely some times where they forget this and betray each other, but that’s okay because they’re human.  White people can betray their family on TV and it’s totally okay because they’re not a representation of their entire race, but, usually, when successful black people are portrayed on TV, they can have no faults because, then, they’re seen as a failure to the black community.  The great thing about Empire is that it’s not filling a role of being a representation of all black people, mostly because it has so many black characters already.  There’s a character for every viewer to connect with.  There’s no picking or choosing which token black person we connect with the most.

I appreciate Empire has a TV show, for these 6 reasons and many more, and I also realize that there are other shows out there that are trying to do some of the same work at Empire, but not to the same degree and not as successfully.  There are so many layers to this show and to the characters, and the black people portrayed are given actual backstories, feelings, desires, and motives.  They’re three dimensional characters, and we definitely need more of those, instead of a token here or there.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!


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