When Empire premiered its second season last month, it immediately announced that, despite the previous season’s glossy 1980s mise-en-scene and retro understanding of the music business, there would be no doubt that the show is set in the here and now. Cookie and her three sons led a huge star-studded #FreeLucious rally that also doubled as a Black Lives Matter protest, with a song citing “No justice, no peace,” a cameo from Al Sharpton, and Cookie descending from inside a cage in a gorilla suit.
In the episodes that have followed, such contemporary references to police brutality and racism have floated around the Lyon family’s squabbles and infighting. But the latest episode, “Poor Yorick,” renews the show’s interests in connecting the past and the present. And it does so via a music video starring on-again-off-again brothers-in-arms Hakeem and Jamal.
More specifically, it’s a music video with a “post-apocalyptic Black Panther theme with the brothers fighting police oppression,” as the director describes it at the beginning of the shoot—because apparently no one knew before they arrived on set what exactly they were going to be producing that day. (Kudos to the actress who worked that mouthful of a line with an impressive mix of deadpan and gravitas.) Jamal and Hakeem manage to channel two iconic duos simultaneously—Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and Dr. Dre and Tupac—by donning slick all black attire, brandishing a shotgun and baseball bat, and performing on top of a distressed car under a gigantic metal dome.
It’s part of Lucious’ master plan to use the FBI’s raid of Empire to his advantage, to paint the image of a black family being wrongly persecuted by the government, and fighting, united, against it. Yet the song itself is rather underwhelming as a political rallying cry. Production-wise, it feels muted and forgettable, and the lyrics—“Girls kissin’ on the couch, women in the shower/ Surround myself with kings, you can keep the cowards"—are very far removed from the Struggle they’re supposedly representing. It’s that disconnect that’s most intriguing, as it seems to accurately represent how Empire has dealt with contemporary racial politics in Season 2—the Lyon family’s message to the world is: Our Struggle Is Your Struggle. If Lucious gets locked up—and, as we the audience knows, he did kill Bunkie—spin the press by turning him into the poster child for the Eric Garners of the world. Empire gets raided? We’re just victims of an oppressive police state just like every other not-rich and not-famous civilian. The pandering is so calculated and unsavory, an act of self-preservation that is interested in the Black Lives Matter movement only inasmuch as they can use it to their advantage.
Within the Empire world, this makes perfect sense. Lucious is of course, the most unremorseful, maniacal of them all, but let’s not forget that—to paraphrase Hakeem and Jamal’s post-apocalyptic anthem—money and power will take precedence over almost everything else for Cookie and her sons, as well. It’s Cookie, after all, who orchestrates the #FreeLucious concert, shushing Hakeem backstage when he rightfully points out that instead “we should be performing for the brothers and sisters that are innocent.” And Hakeem, along with Jamal, effectively tosses those concerns away for this latest episode, never questioning the Black Panther music video theme.
And yet, even if such shameless self-preservation makes narrative sense, it still feels kind of icky, not unlike the way Jay Z’s Occupy Wall Street T-shirts—which did not actually benefit the Occupy Wall Street movement—felt downright offensive. It seems as though the writers wanted to represent what is happening right now to blacks in America while hearkening back to movements of the past—which is great!—but could only find a way to do so through characters who don’t actually care outside of how it can benefit them. The clumsy insertion of these politically charged catchphrases—at one point, Cookie yells out “If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide!” as she’s arrested—mirrors the Lyons’ casual employment of the movement. It would be nice to have at least one character with an actual vested interest in what’s going on in the world, just as we’ve gotten a glimpse of honest LGBTQ activism through Jamal’s boyfriend, Michael, earlier this season.
Instead, these issues are presented solely through a lens of hypocrisy—and it’s hard to tell if this is Empire being provocative for the sake of being provocative (think a Cookie-Anika catfight), or if it’s trying to make some larger point about the bridge between the black glitterati and the rest of black America during times of heightened political tension. Maybe it’s both. But for a show that hardly tracks in subtlety, it's strange that we can't be sure.
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