Let me preface this by saying if you aren't watching Empire yet, get thee to Hulu and catch up posthaste.
The music, the fashion, the writing, the acting — it's phenomenal. But what else would you expect from a show created by Lee Daniels (Monster's Ball, Precious, The Butler) and Danny Strong (The Butler, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 and Part 2)?
On the show, Jamal Lyon is the son of music mogul Lucious Lyon, played with gripping power by Terrence Howard. His mom? The recently released from prison Cookie Lyon, aka Taraji P. Henson at her best.
Smollett's star is quickly rising, thanks to his role on the show as the Lyon family's perceived moral compass. He loves music for the sake of music. He's always happy to help out his little brother, rapper Hakeem, with a solid lyric or killer arrangement. When Cookie gets out of jail, he welcomes her into his apartment and gives her a post-17-year-prison-stint makeover.
And, oh yeah, he's gay.
In this day and age, this shouldn't be a big deal, should it? The fact that a brilliant, kind, talented and driven young black musician has a boyfriend should be a non-issue. Sadly, it's still a major problem for some people, and this tragic truth is reflected in Jamal's strained relationship with his own father.
At the beginning of the season, we learn that Lucious is pitting his three sons — Jamal, Hakeem and the non-musical Andre — against each other to vie for the future throne of Empire Entertainment.
We also learn that Jamal has little hope of inheriting his father's company because he is aware that homophobia in the African-American community (and, specifically, hip-hop culture) essentially rules him out as a contender. It's largely why he has resisted pursuing the music industry to this point.
In tense and — let's be real — gut-wrenching flashbacks, Jamal's troubled relationship with Lucious emerges in fractured memories.
Once, a young Jamal came into the living room wearing Cookie's heels and head scarf while the couple was entertaining company, causing Lucious to completely lose it. As Cookie begs him to calm down, Lucious snatches Jamal up, tears outside and throws the little boy in the garbage.
An emotionally distraught Cookie pulls him out and, still clutching the scared boy, furiously kicks at Lucious as she carries Jamal inside.
As a parent of two babies under 4, it's hard to imagine anything that could lessen the depth of my love for them. Cookie, for all her misgivings, embodies a mother's love — her love for Jamal drowns out any noise from Lucious or from the industry.
The flashback continues into the present, with Jamal performing his song "Good Enough," a lyrical homage to his estranged relationship with his father.
It's a performance Lucious fought against happening in the first place, telling Cookie of the venue, "I've invested a whole lot of money in Leviticus. I'm not going to have it branded a homosexual club."
So, there it is. How are we here? How is it that — in an industry with immense talents like Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 — being gay will land you societal shunning?
As hard as it is to wrap my brain around that, though, I know it to be true. Just last year, T-Pain spoke out against homophobia in hip-hop, saying to The Guardian, "I don't think urban music is getting more gay-friendly because if that was the case, Frank Ocean would be on a lot more songs."
Just earlier this week, Washington Post entertainment reporter Cecilia Kang revealed a dismaying fact to HuffPost Live about the early scene in which Jamal and his boyfriend Michael (played by Rafael de La Fuente) share a kiss.
"The test audiences they showed this to... the ratings plummeted. They did not like that scene at all," she said. Happily, show creators opted not to drop the scene.
Why should they, after all? Two men in love showing their passion in a tasteful way shouldn't affect people any more than if it were a man and a woman in a loving embrace. Love is love, right?
They intend to push buttons with Empire and, in turn, hopefully help incite much-needed change in the industry — a de-stigmatization of sexuality beyond the misogynistic, hyped-up hetero hailed by hip-hop culture.
I, for one, hope they succeed.
And, moreover, I sincerely hope that if there are men and women watching who can't identify with a son they 'fear' might be gay, they will realize the wisdom in Jamal's words to Lucious. "You don't have to understand me, you just have to love me."
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