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.
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.