As you can probably tell from my last post on black television characters, I’m very invested in media representation. Television can make or break a character of color, depicting her in an inspiring light or writing her off as a basic, one-dimensional figment of the imagination that supports the misconceptions made by society’s stereotypes.

I recently read a piece on NPR discussing whether or not the Fox drama Empire reinforces black stereotypes or redefines them. I watch Empire for pure entertainment, on the contrary to the other shows I watch, which either lead me to contemplate post-apocalyptic socialization (The Walking Dead), political madness (House of Cards), feminism and justice (Orange is the New Black), horror, death and the afterlife (American Horror Story) or how to apply random ingredients in my recipes (Chopped on Food Network, I am obsessed). So, yes, It is safe to say that I started watching Empire with the expectation of pure dramatic and musical enjoyment.

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I didn’t even want to watch the show at first – I enjoy Taraji and Terrence but I thought it would be too much to add another show to my extensive roster. And, initially, Empire didn’t appeal to me: I usually don’t like watching shows that are hyped up by the masses because it feels like I’m hopping on a bandwagon.

But after watching one episode with one of my dear friends, my ass hopped right on that bandwagon. Heck, I practically straddled it.

Why? Because it really is an easy show to watch. In a superficial sense, the actors and actresses are all eye candy, and it helps that most of them are already familiar. From a musical standpoint, the tracks are damn catchy and some of them are so generic that I’m surprised I enjoy it so much. Most of the songs are amazing though – of course they are, Timbaland is the head of production – while other songs feel like reflections of the manufactured mainstream hip-hop we shake our asses and bob our heads to today.

The characters all have dynamic, dimensional roles and storylines, and the music that accompanies it all is just as important to the storyline, not serving as merely a soundtrack or background noise. Finally, I appreciate the fact that the soap opera addresses issues such as psychological problems, homophobia and chronic illness, just to name a few.

When I’m about to watch something with an all-black cast or by black writers and producers, I expect to see something that will either represent another side of my race or make me think about an issue within society. I feel that way about Spike Lee and his masterpieces. I feel that way about Tyler Perry as well, but from a critical perspective; his movies are problematic to me and when I watch them I – um, that is best saved for another discussion.

Yet, popular black television and cinema shouldn’t fall into two distinct categories – either extremely conscious or exaggeratedly dramatic. There are many more sides to black culture than that, and having a variety of black shows and movies will help illustrate how diverse our experiences are. I’m not saying that Empire alone will pave the way for a redefinition of black media. But it’s a start. A very fun one.

And, with writers like Shonda Rhimes (Scandal), directors like Ava DuVernay (Selma), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights), George Tillman, Jr (The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete) and Shaka King (Newlyweeds), we’re getting a wider representation of black life. However, we could still have even more presence in film and television, to lengthen, strengthen and make more eclectic our selection.

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  • Sparger

    Is Taraji light skinned? My son and I had an argument about it because we need to get lives. I say she isn’t. He says she is

    • noirluv45

      I wouldn’t consider her light-skinned.

    • [email protected]

      I consider Taraji light brown skin.

    • noirluv45

      Yeah.

    • [email protected]

      A lot of times during the summer light brown skinned people will get a tan and look more darker. Melanin is so beautiful. We exist in many hues and black is always beautiful.

    • elle D.

      Right on -as always!

    • [email protected]

      Thank you Sister.

    • elle D.

      Thank you for your on point commentary,you always express my thoughts better than I can put it!

    • [email protected]

      You’re Welcome.

    • Me

      i think she’s brown skinned & the lighting sometimes washes her out. same goes with hakeem.

    • elle D.

      Not at all.

  • Me

    i liked this article. but i wanted to point out that the thing with this light skin/dark skin beef that folks like to keep fueling is that they forget black is a spectrum, not an either/or. cookie & hakeem are both brown (not light, but not dark). malik’s character is definitely dark skin and definitely was not “the help” since he was head legal council (until he died) for the firm. jamal’s new english boyfriend is not light skin or the help… he owns his own photography company and doesn’t take s**t from lucius, camille is not light skin or the help… she had her own career & so far seems to be hakeem’s most serious love interest, and then there’s all the cameos/artists that are under empire’s label that have been light skin, dark skin & everything inbetween who may not have recurring roles on the show, but definitely are not cast as “the help”.

    as a matter of fact, i’m pretty offended on gabourey’s behalf and all the people i know who are executive assistants that her character would be classified as “the help”. people who hold that position have to be quick on their feet, know a lot about the company, and climb the ladder to get that executive spot and be successful at it. calling becky “the help” is like saying all she does is hold lucious’s toilet paper for him. it’s an insult that’s left over from the days when secretaries were stereotyped as nothing more than lobby eye candy.

    now i’ll be really honest & say that i think gabby’s character keeps getting the most of the criticism b/c gabby (the real life person) is overweight & dark skinned. i bet if becky looked like anika & played the exact same character, folks would see her for what she really is written to be. she goes through fire drills just like everyone else at the company (the episode when they went to war w/creedmore, becky was tracking down artists just like everyone else at the conference table). she manages projects, deals with artists, and busts her butt just like every other empire employee but folks are feening so bad to box their prejudice towards gabby into a narrow-minded misconception of her character. it’s this kinda prejudgment & bias that causes folks, especially black folks, to be pigeon holed in their careers b/c no matter what they do, folks just can’t see past the stereotypes imprinted in their brains about certain people.

  • D1Mind

    This article is simply trying to say that black folks should embrace stereotypical portrayals as something that can redefine the black experience. So black folks getting shot down on the street and falling farther and farther behind on every scale isn’t important. Of course not! We only have to celebrate the new redefined stereotypes of Negroes on T.V. That’s it. Black gays on TV are the only thing we need to worry about. This pandering to empty deflated agendas that are in reality trying to redefine black attitudes towards negative stereotypes is ridiculous.

    Why aren’t there any movies and TV shows about all the white, gay and racist entertainment executives who also have ties to drugs and organize crime? But yet we are to believe that black folks represent the epitome of criminality and sexuality (any kind of sexuality) in entertainment?

    It is sad when people are so starved of any real worthwhile media that they praise any slop thrown at them and try and encourage the rest of us to do it too. Sure, this has been going on for the last 100 years, but the difference is that now there is nothing LEGALLY stopping us from making more meaningful content for black folks in media. But nope. You got clowns saying that we don’t need better content showing more meaningful and substantial views of black life. We just need to keep the stereotypes and just redefine how we look at them. Seriously.