Whether you look at the social effects of The Cosby Show or Will & Grace, it is clear that television can influence public opinion for better or for worse. The question, then, is why does Empire (FOX) choose to shape it for the worse?
Empire has the opportunity to teach about racial tolerance through its portrayal of a black family, and culture, but instead it settles for political allegiances and casual racism against whites. The series tells the story of a music label’s CEO, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who is given a fatal diagnosis of ALS. Lucious must then choose between his three competitive sons for his successor, all while dealing with the reappearance of his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji Henson), who just spent 17 years in jail.
The dialogue on race has been one of the greatest thematic arches for the show since its debut. Co-creator Danny Strong, in a recent interview, stated: “I think there’s a lot of shame in American race relations. There’s a lot of suppressed guilt that lashes itself out still. I see that all the time, and whereas opposed to sort of trying to address the issue in an up-front way, they’re attacking and thus perpetuating the problem …”
What Strong didn’t say is that while Empire may not veil its comments on race, it actually does worse by openly provoking hostility. Throughout the season, for example, there is tension between Lucious and Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), the wife of one of his sons, who is white. Instead of providing a positive model for interracial families, Rhonda is regularly called a “white b*tch” and is told she could never understand the Lyon family’s culture. Wednesday night’s two part season finale didn’t pull any punches on this topic either. One black character is criticized for her “white” name, and it is mentioned that a successor for Empire Entertainment is needed so a “white man” won’t try to buy the company. Empire also makes it clear that it is aligned with a certain political agenda when in the season finale, at a press conference for an upcoming concert, a character announced that a percent of the fictional proceeds would go to Black Lives Matter.
The fact that in 2015 such persistently unrepentant, and careless, racism and racial antagonism is portrayed on a hit TV show does nothing to ease viewers’ perceptions of society and the ability for different cultures to peacefully coexist. While Empire is successful for its brilliant mix of acting, storylines, and music, it is missing its opportunity to be a cultural force for good. Hopefully the writers change their tune on race relations for season two.