podcast review

Empire on Blood Is a Compelling But Frustrating Podcast

Calvin Buari, the subject of Empire on Blood.

Empire on Blood is a complicated creature. There is a heartbreaking story at the center of this Panoply true-crime podcast, one that revolves around a once-powerful drug dealer who spent two decades in jail for a crime he did not commit. It hits a range of urgent, difficult issues: the systemic travesties of the American legal system, how one should square the life of a person who has done unambiguously bad things against a miscarriage of justice levied against him, and the pathways for black men to reclaim a genuine sense of freedom in a system that never offered them a clear shot at one in the first place.

But the tricky thing about Empire on Blood lies in its commitment to stylization and the subjective reality of its narrator, the journalist Steve Fishman (a contributing editor to New York Magazine and the host of last year’s Audible Original Ponzi Supernova). In the end, what we’re left with is a documentary project that’s either absolutely thrilling or completely frustrating, depending on where you stand on Fishman’s approach.

Let’s set the scene. Empire on Blood, which dropped all seven of its episodes in late March, follows the case of Calvin Buari, a black man who headed up a formidable crack trade on the corner of 213th and Bronxwood during the early ’90s, an era when the crime rate was rampant in the Bronx and the Giuliani mayorship was just over the horizon. In 1995, just over a year into the Giuliani administration, Buari was sent to prison for the shooting of two brothers, though the circumstances of the conviction was suspect. He didn’t deny his involvement in the drug trade, but he consistently denied any involvement in the double homicide. Nonetheless, Buari was jailed on the strength of court testimonies from his crew members, who were turned against him by the District Attorney’s office.

Buari’s fall and conviction sets up the journey of Empire on Blood, which follows the campaign to overturn his conviction. The podcast bears a somewhat unconventional structure that unfurls across time, threads, characters, directions. It contrasts with the more linear configurations favored by most true-crime podcasts that rely on the thrill of investigative momentum. Such momentum doesn’t factor much in Empire, which isn’t particularly propelled by the usual “did he or didn’t he?” engine, nor by questions over Buari’s ultimate fate. Instead, led by Fishman’s authorial curiosities (and personal investment, given that he’s spent seven years reporting this story), Empire possesses a more theatrical air of grand tragedy.

I’m not going to say that Empire is “novelistic,” because it really isn’t — not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. But it does feel like a pulpy crime novel, and from that angle, it totally works. This is expressed through numerous choices of insistent style: Fishman’s verbose and dramatic narration, copious deployment of first-person asides, and an intense fascination with world-building details mostly irrelevant to the core case, among others. Some of these choices are genuinely refreshing, tantamount to an unexpected injection of life and peppy fizziness into a genre often filled with portent. They contribute a juicy quality to the storytelling, a tangible sense of an unearthed world replete with turtle-loving prosecutors, ailing geriatric crusaders, and foreboding discussions in diners.

What’s challenging is the trade-off that comes with these stylizations. Seeing Buari’s campaign for exoneration through Fishman’s eyes is plenty compelling, but does it serve the case well? As a narrator whose point of view builds the world of Empire on Blood, Fishman is totalizing. Simply everything about Buari’s case — theories, arguments, characters, facts, truths — is processed and presented through Fishman’s prism of quirks, tendencies, and curiosities. It gets weird and unnerving because, simply, there are things about Buari’s world that he isn’t really able to reflect or reconcile despite how hard he works to bear witness, by virtue of his race and life circumstances. (Fishman is a successful Caucasian writer.)

This tension brings to mind Jay Caspian Kang’s 2014 essay on white privilege in journalism and Serial, which digs deep into the seemingly infinite distance separating a white reporter’s good intentions and their actual capacity to understand, translate, and reckon with a community not of their own. Indeed, this dynamic is made even more obvious in Empire should you read other contemporary reported pieces on Buari’s case, particularly this 2015 BuzzFeed investigation, which hits the same narrative and factual beats but delivers them in a more sober, contemplative manner to vastly different effect.

Further complicating Empire is how Fishman is an active character in Buari’s story, both literally and emotionally. Over years of reporting, Fishman develops intimate bonds with a number of his subjects. He brokers conversations and occasionally helps move things along. He sends gifts, passes messages. He is present and active at pivotal moment of their lives. Which is all to say, he is constantly in the position to make choices that can change the outcome of Buari’s life, and the discrepancies between when he takes action and when he doesn’t are made glaringly apparent. Nowhere is this more clear than in Empire’s spectacular concluding episode: In the end, Buari’s conviction is successfully overturned and he returns home, but not long after, as Fishman tells us, Buari is homeless, struggling against an unforgiving system as he tries to start a new life and a new business. It’s a heartbreaking coda, but one that’s doubly infuriating given Fishman’s active presence throughout Buari’s story. Why did the reporter choose to help his subject in some ways, and not others? Why doesn’t he intervene here?

It’s worth noting that you could flip this around. The question of the reporter-documentarian’s presence as an active character in a story is an ever-present one, detectable in myriad documentary projects across media like The Jinx, Missing Richard Simmons, and so on. You could even go so far as to argue that, instead of being an ethical liability, Fishman’s presence as a full-fledged character in Empire on Blood is actually a feat of radical reportorial transparency. Reportorial objectivity is a kind of performative fiction, the argument might go, and there are always elements of the narrator kept hidden from the audience. From this perspective, Fishman is laying all his cards out on the table for you to judge, and that is perhaps an illuminating and commendable move all on its own.

Maybe. It’s also possible that you can split the issue of radical transparency from the issue of whether Fishman did a worthwhile job with Buari’s story. I find the former incredibly valuable, but am still struggling with the latter. For what it’s worth, I liked Empire on Blood quite a bit, but I can’t seem to tamp down my uneasiness with Fishman’s narrative prominence in a story that’s ultimately about someone else with infinitely higher stakes. It’s a difference in power that I just can’t reconcile, grounded in the politics of one man’s story being at the mercy of another man’s personal system.

Empire on Blood Is a Compelling But Frustrating Podcast