The Cookie Conundrum: Is ‘Empire’ Wrong to Portray Blacks as Criminals?

Critics who claim Empire portrays the worst in black stereotypes forget that black characters are free to be as flawed as any other human beings.

Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire is over-the-top. It’s melodramatic. It can be laughably cheesy. And it’s one of the most watchable shows on TV.

The exploits of Lucious Lyon and his not-quite-estranged-enough wife Cookie have become must-see television for many Americans. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Fox drama’s viewership peaked with 14.2 million viewers last week, with roughly 100,000 new views of the series premiere episode per day on VOD, Hulu, and the FoxNow app. It’s on track to become the highest-rated new scripted series of the season.

But some have criticized the show for portraying the worst in black stereotypes—from its hip-hop industry clichés to its violence and drug dealing backstories. In a year with so many high-profile cases of black men being gunned down by police, and with so much racism being unveiled—from Hollywood executives to Oklahoma frat boys—critics feel that it is irresponsible to portray black people as criminals and crooks in such crass fashion.

For the uninitiated, the show revolves around Lyon, the former drug dealer who is now CEO of Empire Entertainment, and his wife, Cookie, who’s just come home after serving 17 years in prison and wants her stake in the booming business she helped start. In the center of the power struggle between the former lovers are their three sons: the manipulative, Ivy League-educated Andre; the sensitive singer-songwriter and gay middle son, Jamal; and the burgeoning hip-hop star and spoiled youngest son, Hakeem. The sons are all battling for their father’s respect and his company, oblivious to the fact that Lucious has been diagnosed with ALS and given three years to live.

Executive-produced by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), it’s all set against a “boughetto” (that’s “bougie + ghetto”—try to keep up) backdrop of gunplay, glitz, and gold diggers. And that’s rubbing some folks the wrong way.

Empire doesn’t try to be the defining portrayal of black people. No more than ABC’s Black-ish or Starz hit Power or popular Thursday night dramas like Scandal or How To Get Away With Murder. Black stories should be compelling and rich; they should be entertaining. They don’t have to be pristine. And they shouldn’t be preoccupied with presenting a black experience that serves as some sort of panacea for the racist ideas that permeate American culture.

There is no shortage of darkness on American television. Ever since Tony Soprano strangled a man while visiting colleges with his teenage daughter, the small screen has been overpopulated with antiheroes. Walter White was a chemistry teacher turned murderous meth dealer. Don Draper is an alcoholic womanizer and pathological liar. Nucky Thompson. Frank Underwood. And the list goes on. This is not the era of Alex P. Keaton, Steve Urkel, and Very Special Episodes.

Black art and entertainment shouldn’t exist solely to promote the most spotless representations of black people. The black experience is at its most unfiltered when white folks aren’t watching. We speak with a candor and honesty that is uniquely ours; we dance freely and divinely. No one tells you don’t say “ain’t” or “nann” and no one tells you not to shake your hips quite so loosely. Not when you’re free to be you, as opposed to being shackled by the respectability that racism has conditioned you to believe is your public uniform. Empire feels like a show that was created by black people and for black people.

That’s not to be naïve about who greenlights a series and what advertisers pay for, but recognizing the reality of who’s in power in Hollywood does not mean ignoring black creativity just because it happens to be manifested in a way that one finds unappealing. 2Pac may have been on Interscope Records, but Jimmy Iovine didn’t write those raps. And just because a show or a song or a movie does not pretend to be about “uplifting” anyone doesn’t mean it has zero artistic merit or entertainment value. I’m not sure if House of Cards is at all uplifting, but I sure am entertained by it. Much of the criticism of Empire seems rooted in the age-old pathology that says black people must hold themselves to a “higher standard.” That, in essence, means that black people must be perfect and pander to racists, as opposed to being as free and flawed as any other human being is entitled to be.

From the 1970s to the early 2000s, black sitcoms were quite popular on American television. An entire generation of black kids grew up watching Good Times and The Cosby Show and Family Matters. Those shows—along with others—tell an interesting tale about how the American viewer came to see black people on TV. Norman Lear’s ’70s shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons were unflinchingly topical, presenting racial and class issues in an in-your-face manner indicative of the pop culture swing of the post-Watergate world. The ’80s were about putting a nice, glossy sheen over American wounds, so the black shows of that era presented mostly smiling and safe depictions of African-American culture—from the affluent Huxtables to the affable Winslows. In the ’90s, upward mobility was emphasized, so we got to see black people basking in the stability of the Clinton years on shows like Living Single and Martin—with nods to how much hip-hop had become part of the landscape as well.

But all of those shows were comedies. They all included a laugh track and kept the darkness to a minimum. Every episode aimed simply to make you laugh or teach you a lesson. Whenever you saw black people in more dramatic fashion, they were typically either some brooding criminal being chased by The Good Guys, or they were one of The Good Guys doing the chasing. Moral ambiguity wasn’t really allowed for most black television characters. We’re in largely uncharted waters here.

Which is why the knee-jerk reaction to Empire is somewhat understandable; for generations of black people raised on simplistic portrayals of black people as either “safe” or “scary,” it’s difficult to recognize that these new black television characters like Lucious Lyon or “Ghost” St. James on Power, or even Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder aren’t cut from that same limited cloth. But pining for a return to the Carl Winslows and Claire Huxtables isn’t a move forward—it’s 10 steps back. Black television should be expanded upon, not limited. There should be variety and scope and myriad black stories being told. Some of those stories will be dark. Some will be over-the-top. All are worthwhile if there is an audience who wants to support them. This is not a bad thing. Empire is not the enemy; racist double standards are the enemy.

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But, hey, if you need a pretty black show with pretty black problems, there’s always Black-ish.