Empire premiere met with mixed feelings over Black Lives Matter 'mockery'

Sep 23, 2015 at 11:51 p.m. ET
Image: Empire/Fox

Arguably one of the most anticipated premieres of the fall TV lineup, Lee Daniels' Empire kicked off Season 2 tonight — and the notoriously melodramatic show delivered more than just memorable one-liners from the lips of Cookie Lyon.

Although, rest assured, there were plenty of those, too.

On the heels of the groundbreaking series' ratings-smashing debut season, Lee Daniels and cocreator Danny Strong undoubtedly knew they needed to challenge viewers if the show was going to continue to live up to the hype. Enter Season 2, which premiered with a huge concert.

Empire Season 2
Image: Fox

Only, this wasn't simply another star-studded musical event thrown in the name of the Lyon legacy. This was a concert with a sociopolitical purpose. It was a rally — more specifically, a "Free Lucious" rally. But viewed in a broader lens, it's obvious the event was meant to mimic rallies held as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Empire Season 2
Image: Fox

Throughout the crowd, bright signs dotted the sea of people bearing hashtags that read "OfficerDontShoot." A surprising cameo by journalist Don Lemon nearly parodied itself, alluding to his perceived fumbling of Ferguson coverage.

Empire Season 2
Image: Fox

Celebrity musical cameos such as Swizz Beatz took the stage to deliver a pointed message — that 1.6 million black men are currently being held in mass incarceration. But none delivered the message more viscerally than Cookie herself.

Soon after the crowd began asking for the Lyon family matriarch, a large cage was seen being lowered onto the stage — in it was someone in a gorilla suit. When the cage hit the stage, though, the mask was pulled off to reveal Cookie to an approving crowd.

Empire Season 2
Image: Giphy

Empire Season 2
Image: Giphy

Empire Season 2
Image: Giphy

Then, Cookie posed a powerful question. "How much longer? 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's a system that must be dismantled piece by piece if we are 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?"

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Taraji P. Henson, ladies and gentleman. That woman is brilliant. Her timing, flawless. Still, despite the warm reception to Henson/Cookie, the rally portion of the premiere was met with mixed feelings.

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Is the message relevant? Clearly. We live in a society where we may likely segue from Empire's Season 2 premiere into a 10 p.m. news segment discussing another young black man gunned down by an overzealous white cop. The Black Lives Matter message isn't what Black Twitter took Empire to task for; rather, it was the delivery. Did Daniels essentially parody this important movement? Was it, as one fan suggests, a "mockery" since the man this rally is being held for murdered someone?

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In building Empire's premiere on the premise of the Black Lives Matter movement and fronting it with Lucious Lyon, did Daniels inadvertently water down the very real (and very important) concentration of the movement?

I would wager no. And you know why?

Because as fuzzy as the message was delivered onscreen, the real-life men and women behind the movement brought it into sharp focus on social media. In the response from Twitter, I saw a community full of young advocates, full of men and women who are informed and impassioned. They are sociopolitical warriors. They are the freedom riders of the digital age.

Empire Season 2
Image: Fox

And they had something to say about it. So why are the reviews being posted glossing over the insightful reactions of the very culture that makes Empire popular? After all, it would seem Daniels is pulling his story lines straight from their social media feeds.

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Because it wasn't — and it isn't — just the Black Lives Matter movement these digital activists concern themselves with. They also address other social issues Empire editorialized. Like gender inequality: 

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Bigotry toward the LGBTQ community

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The appropriateness of "White Allies": 

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And police brutality: 

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So, where Empire really got it right tonight was in hearing so many of the issues currently being advocated for or against in black culture. Where it (and society at large) went wrong? Maybe we just aren't listening hard enough.

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