Even within the stricter confines of network TV, Lee Daniels continues to provoke. His new evening soap opera Empire is, as Slate’s Willa Paskin noted in her review, “invigoratingly free of anxiety about causing offense.” And in tonight’s episode, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), the youngest and wildest son of the musical Lyon dynasty, is recorded on camera drunkenly insulting President Obama—a friend of his father, Lucious, played by Terrence Howard—in front of a stunned crowd of mostly white patrons dining at a “fine establishment.” He then accuses said patrons of voting for the first black president solely out of white liberal guilt. Oh, and Obama is called a “sell-out.” Twice.
It’s a bizarre, though not unrealistic, scene, and it’s one that makes me grateful that Daniels—who has co-written 12 episodes, in addition to directing the first two—has brought his brazenness to the small screen at this moment. Whatever your own thoughts about our current president, it’s safe to say that much of Hollywood has played it safe when it comes to depicting Obama. Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal, made the conscious decision to ignore him entirely and cast a white man as a fictional modern president—Paskin interviewed Rhimes in 2013 for a New York Times Magazine piece and shared with me part of the transcript of their discussion that didn’t wind up in print:
I knew that Olivia was going to be African American because Judy [Smith, the loose inspiration for the show] was African American, because it made sense to me. And I knew that Fitz was going to be white because … I didn’t want anybody thinking we were talking about Obama in any way, shape, or form. We’ve had many, many, many white Presidents and we’ve only had one black one.
Scandal first premiered in the spring of 2012, when Obama was still in his first term. Could Daniels have written such a scene back then and seen it aired on a major network? Would he have? I’m not so sure, but I’m relieved that he can, and did, now. Having a black character openly criticize Obama—at one point, a friend of Hakeem’s says, “That brother ain’t even half of a brother, anyway”—is another way to bring a different point of view, and help break down stereotypes about black people’s supposedly blind allegiance to the president. It’s a sassy counter to the funny, and increasingly ridiculous, recurring SNL sketch, “How’s He Doing.” And to have real equality, the first black president should be criticized just like every other president before him.
But in true Daniels style, Hakeem’s outburst is complicated. Hakeem’s drunken, at times nonsensical, braggadocio, delivered in front of rich white folks, could be seen as a “shame” to his race, making the rest of us black folks “look bad.” Even Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), chastises him for allowing their son to play a concert after the controversy. “You’re a horrible parent,” she says. “How do you let that boy talk all that trash about Barack Obama, and still let him perform?”
Empire, thankfully, doesn’t slip so easily into the mode of “respectability politics.” Even amid the glorious scenery chewing and campy dialogue—the show is basically Douglas Sirk meets Nashville by way of the chitlin’ circuit—this is no morality tale. Daniels doesn’t pick sides in the debate over Obama’s legacy, he simply presents, unfiltered, some of the many ways in which black people view the president. To see a black storyteller on network TV with that much freedom—not just within the entertainment system, but within his own creative mind—is invigorating.