There is no stopping the momentous rise of Lee Daniel’s “Empire.”
Not only was the Hip-Hop Shakespearean-inspired night-time drama renewed for a second season only after only two episodes, but it has also made a bunch of rating history.
“According to preliminary national estimates from Nielsen, “Empire” (4.7 rating/14 share in adults 18-49, 11.9 million viewers overall) was up a tick in the demo while gaining about 400,000 total viewers to hit new highs in both categories. Since bowing with 9.9 million viewers on Jan. 7, the soap has grown with each week: 10.3 million, 11.1 million, 11.4 million, 11.5 million and now 11.9 million.
Last week, it became the first program in the history of Nielsen’s People Meters (going back to 1991) to grow in total viewers with each of its four episodes following its premiere. And last night, it added to its record.”
And that’s not all: according to the Black marketing and media research site Target Market News.com, of the 11.4 million viewers captured during its third week telecast, “its core viewership of fans is 67 percent Black — the highest ever recorded for any prime time series.”
In the words of Beyoncé, Got-damn. Got-damn. Got-damn…
This is great news for Daniels, whose foray into network television has exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. It’s not only a testament to the series’ writing, which at times feels more direct-to-video Nollywood than serious drama, but also to the sheer talent of the cast. In particular Taraji P. Henson whose performance of Cookie Lyon is nothing short of iconic.
What makes “Empire’s” dominance even more interesting is that it should not have happened, at least according to popular belief.
Prior to the series premiere, I had questions about how Black folks specifically would feel about Daniels’ characterization of the entire community as homophobic. If you recall during the first episode, Jamal Lyon, played by Jussie Smollett, made the comment in scene with his boyfriend that “the Black community is notoriously homophobic.”
I acknowledge that there are Black people that are regressive and antagonistic when it comes to gay rights issues as well as GLBTQ people (as demonstrated by the audiences’ reaction to the on-screen kiss during the screening of the series). And it is about time that folks’ minds evolve a bit.
However, I also recognize how the exaggeration of the Black community’s homophobia is also slightly racist as homophobia is not cultural. And those exaggerations not only ignore how homophobia is prevalent and normalized in mainstream culture but also how it white washes over the ways in which the Black community, as a whole, has been more progressive than our mainstream counterparts. As Gene Demby wrote about his conversation with Greg Lewis, a political scientist at Georgia State University back in 2013 for NPR:
“And as he crunched some numbers, he found that black opinion on gays — to the extent that there’s a “black opinion” on anything — isn’t really easy to define. You’ve got to hold a bunch of disparate ideas in your head at once; Lewis found that black folks are less likely than white people to believe that homosexuality is “not wrong at all” (25 percent to 40 percent).2 He also found that the gap is true even when he controlled for other variables like educational attainment, church attendance and age. Yet blacks have historically been more likely to support nondiscrimination initiatives for gay people. The “black church,” long held up as the vector for black opposition to homosexuality, includes many outspoken clergy members who have been instrumental to same-sex marriage initiatives.”
Yet after the premiere of the first episode, Daniels continued to push the narrative of the notorious homophobic Black community, specifically saying in an interview,“Homophobia is rampant in the African-American community, and men are on the DL. They don’t come out [and] they’re killing our women.” He also acknowledged that he was using the series to help “blow the lid off of it, and of homophobia, in our community.”
If the ratings are any indication, it is not clear how Daniels had hoped the series would achieve its stated goal.
Now, I firmly believe that just because the masses might like your art and culture, doesn’t mean they like you. The constant appropriation of Black culture while devaluing Black people is a prime example of that. Also how gay men have almost been turned into accessories on certain women-centered reality television shows is a perfect example of that as well.
But outside of the usual lot of contrarians citing respectability concerns, representational issues, phony Black nationalism and religious dogma, there hasn’t been much in the way of discussion of the Jamal storyline – other than Daniels’ mischaracterization of the Black community. For the most part, fans and critics appear to enjoy both Jamal and his storyline and don’t read into either as anything more than it all being the campy Black-version of “Dynasty.” Better yet, an actualized version of Robert Townsend’s The Bold, The Black, The Beautiful.
Or if folks are critiquing they are commending the series for its realness.
While the lack of reaction to what Daniels had hoped would spark controversy does not suggest a mass acceptance of homosexuality, it might suggest that people are not as notorious in their concern or hatred – at least to the point where they are actually tuning the show out or threatening boycotts.
Or perhaps, the commentary he is hoping to make about homosexuality within the Black community, might be getting lost in the spectacle of the series itself?
After all, we are talking about a story revolving around a Hip Hop mogul and his family, who in no way look anything like your average Black household (middle class or otherwise) in America. Outside of Jamal’s storyline, there are also storylines involving murder, mental health issues and a brewing hostile takeover. With so much going on plot-wise, I can see many viewers missing the message and opting to just view it all as entertainment.
It’s interesting that Daniels sees this series as a vehicle to expose homophobia and yet from a viewer standpoint, there is no other more sympathetic character on the series (thus far) than Jamal. In fact, I don’t know a single person who is not rooting for him to win the entire domain. And I have a feeling that as this series progresses (and knowing the type of craziness Daniels is known to create), that cheering section is only going to grow louder and more prominent. So while Daniels might have hoped to “blow the lid off of it,” he might actually help to push some people forward to acceptance.