A rally of outraged black people has overtaken Central Park, holding banners protesting the unfair treatment of a brother who’s been held in police custody for three months without bail. Swizz Beatz stands onstage before them, delivering chilling statistics in a forceful, commanding tone: “Did you know there are 1.68 million black men being held under mass incarceration in America’s prison system today, right now?” No, this isn’t a trip inside Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. It’s the opening scene of season two of Empire.
Other shows have done admirable takes on the Black Lives Matter movement — Scandal, The Good Wife, and The Carmichael Show among them — but none with quite the same confrontational vigor as Empire. The rally, we quickly learn, is meant to force authorities into granting a new bail hearing for Empire’s patriarch, hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), whom we’ve already seen commit the very murder that got him arrested. What’s more, this brilliant bit of misdirectional PR is the brainchild of Lucious’s ex-con ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who knows he is guilty. (Then add in the thorny subtext of Howard’s own admissions to having hit his ex-wives.) Scandal and The Good Wife both featured story lines about an unarmed black man being shot by a white police officer, while The Carmichael Show delved into real talk about the racial profiling black men (and women) anticipate every time they walk outside. The lines of right and wrong are clearly delineated, the audience’s sympathies easy to gain. Empire, on the other hand, throws its viewers into murkier waters, challenging them to consider a more complex reality: Can you wrap your head around a policing and correctional system that both often gets the right guys and is fundamentally unjust?
In its own twisted way, Empire manages to both promote the cause of social justice while undercutting it. Lucious Lyon is a vicious murderer who definitely ought to be behind bars, but the numbers Swizz Beatz quotes are also real (even if they’re not quite accurate: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it’s actually 1.68 million African-American men under what’s known as “correctional control,” which includes the 526,000 in state and federal prisons, as well as those on probation and parole). Just because Cookie is throwing this rally under false pretenses doesn’t mean those alarming incarceration rates don’t correspond with, as John Legend stated eloquently in his Oscar speech, the disenfranchisement of an entire sector of the population. Cookie points out that Bill Clinton is there, too, mainly because he has to be to get his wife elected, so how is anything she’s doing all that different? The show’s soapy lack of subtlety and moralizing serves the larger point better than earnestness can. Cookie and Lucious may have done some terrible things in their lives, but even they can see that there’s nothing right about African-Americans making up 13 percent of the people in this country and roughly 35 percent of people in jail and prison — a statistic that spikes when you just include black men.
Just how direct is the opening sequence? There’s Cookie’s youngest son, Hakeem, telling his mom that they ought to be throwing this rally for the unknown number of innocent men and women of color who are currently incarcerated due to systematic prejudices and disadvantages at every level. (New York recently spoke to eight of them.) There’s Sean Cross in a hoodie, likely referencing Trayvon Martin, rapping about the #HandsUpDontShoot and #ICantBreathe deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. And most of all there’s that rabid, chest-beating gorilla in a cage that descends from the sky and rips off its mask to reveal Cookie, dressed in Gucci. It’s a baller move, at once reappropriating both a painful racial insult and slamming a stake through some of the less overt but no less ugly parts of American history — as a direct reference to 1932’s Blonde Venus, in which Marlene Dietrich dances in a gorilla costume for Cary Grant at a whites-only nightclub before a line of dancers wearing Afros and tribal face-paint.
“How much longer?” Cookie screams from the cage, like she means it. “How much longer are they gonna treat us like animals? The American correctional system is built on the backs of our brothers, our fathers, and our sons. How much longer? It is a system that must be dismantled piece by piece if we are able to live up to those words that we recite with our hands on our hearts: Justice for all. Not justice for some, but justice for all! How much longer? Say it!”
A series of high-profile black men stop by the protest, bringing with them more varied perspective. André Leon Talley shows up to throw shade on Cookie’s “last-season” Gucci, but he’s also there as a reminder that racial profiling reaches up to the highest levels of Vogue. CNN’s Don Lemon is there, too, it seems, to atone. First, Cookie’s assistant Porsha (the amazing Ta’Rhonda Jones, who looks and sounds like no one else on TV) tells him to get away because she didn’t approve of his Ferguson coverage, which included a reference to the smell of marijuana in the air; she calls it “Peterson,” but point made. Cookie tells Lemon he “did good out there in Ferguson,” then whispers a parting shot against his controversial stance that journalists ought to say the full N-word on TV. And of course Al Sharpton is there, covering all political bases by praising the protest but refusing to help the (fictional) man. “Word on the street is he ain’t right on this,” Sharpton says when Cookie asks for him to use his pull to get Lucious out. “I can’t get involved in nothing wrong.”
The most striking images of the sequence, though, are those fabulous faces the camera keeps zooming in on, the ones that clearly didn’t come from any traditional Hollywood-extras casting call, with their proud African features and skin in hues darker than those that typically appear on television. Beyond the spectacle and all those ulterior motives, this protest is real to them, both in the world of Empire and likely in their lives when they leave the set. In a recent Vulture interview, Taraji P. Henson talks about how she sees the show as responsible for opening minds to a woman like Cookie — a drug-dealer ex-con who beats her adult son with a broom — as being human, and even likable. “The more we know about each other the less hate we’ll have. You hate something you’re afraid of, you know?” says Henson. “Somebody who has never been to the hood might meet Cookie on the street and say, This bitch is crazy!” says Henson. “But because we’re showing this TV show, they might see a woman like Cookie and say, Oh, I like her!”
There’s a similar beauty to be found beneath the insane excess of that opening segment, not to mention what I’ve seen so far in the first three episodes of the season. Mass incarceration, police brutality, and racial profiling aren’t the stuff of Very Special Episodes for the Lyon family, or their legion of fans in the Empire world, or their Nielsen-busting audience on this side of the screen. This is their life, an ever-present specter that looms in the corner of everything they do, and the more that’s presented on television as fact, the better. And there’s an enormous amount of sanity in that.