By Bryan Gallion
For Unwind magazine
Fox’s Empire has already found fierce viewer support and critical acclaim, but for more than its addictive storyline. Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong use their show as a platform to educate viewers about social issues in a realistic manner.
The program roared onto television Jan. 4 and is already a bona fide cultural phenomenon. This hip-hop soap opera follows the Lyon family through various conflicts as they manage Empire Entertainment, a family-owned entertainment enterprise.
Racism, sexism, interracial marriage, homosexuality, drug abuse, crime and mental illness were explored in the show’s 12-episode debut season, playing out on television as viewers debate the same issues nationwide.
Actor Terrence Howard plays patriarch Lucious Lyon, a drug dealer-turned-CEO diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, given only three years to live. All three of his sons are poised to replace their father on the Empire throne, but Lucious is indecisive in choosing his successor due to his retrogressive opinions.
Eldest son Andre, played by Trai Byers, is Ivy League educated, but Lucious looks down on him for his lack of musical ability, his marriage to a white woman and his bipolar disorder. On the other hand, middle son Jamal, played by Jussie Smollett, has clear musical talent, but is disdained by Lucious for being gay. The youngest, Hakeem, played by Bryshere Y. Gray, is a skilled rapper but gets into trouble due to his party-boy ways.
“I expected the show to be a lot about music,” freshman animal sciences major Tamia DeLoach said. “I didn’t expect it to hit so hard with Lucious’s disability.”
At a time when blacks are frequently facing police brutality, Empire made an explicit statement regarding the matter. In the season one finale, singer Patti LaBelle guest-starred as a performer at Lucious’s comeback concert and claimed that a portion of the show’s proceeds would go to Black Lives Matter.
Many social conflicts examined by the show are issues Daniels, a gay black man, has experienced firsthand. They strive for authenticity because the issues portrayed relate to their own lives.
“Lucious is a lot of my father and a lot of me,” Daniels said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “[He] had to do what he had to do to get where he got. And that’s my story.”
Gender roles are also interwoven into Empire plotlines; Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Hensen) served 17 years behind bars to cover up for her former husband’s drug-related crime. In the series pilot, she trades in her orange jumpsuit for designer duds, returning to wreak havoc in Lucious’s already chaotic life.
“Cookie proves that women can be independent, work for what they want and get where they need to be on their own,” junior journalism major Tessa Trach said.
While many shows have the ability to captivate viewers with interesting plots, few have the ability to grow with its viewers, facing and learning about social issues together. Empire succeeds in concurrently entertaining and educating.