A DIF­FER­ENT KIND OF BLACK­NESS

CityPress - - Front Page - PHOTO: MICHAEL LAVINE / FOX

BLACK GOLD Em­pire stars Ter­rence Howard and Taraji P Hen­son. The hit se­ries has been break­ing all kinds of broad­cast records. Ac­cord­ing to its stars, it is the first TV show in decades that casts black peo­ple as wealthy pro­fes­sion­als at the top of their game. Howard – who plays the lead char­ac­ter, mu­sic mogul Lu­cious Lyon – at­tributes part of the se­ries’ suc­cess to its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a dif­fer­ent kind of black­ness. ‘When was the last time we saw a rich, black fam­ily in a prime­time se­ries? The Cos­bys, who were up­per mid­dle class? There were the Jef­fer­sons be­fore that, but who else since then?’ he asks. The stars of the hit se­ries were in SA this week

Em­pire, which pre­miered on the Fox chan­nel in Jan­uary last year, broke a 23-year tele­vi­sion rat­ings record in the US when it be­came the only TV show to grow its view­er­ship in each of its first five broad­casts. A colos­sal 16.7 mil­lion view­ers watched sea­son one’s two-hour fi­nale, sig­nalling the best first-sea­son view­er­ship for any net­work since the de­but sea­son of med­i­cal drama se­ries Grey’s Anatomy 11 years ago. So why is Em­pire break­ing all the records? Ac­cord­ing to its stars, it is the first TV show in decades that casts black peo­ple as wealthy pro­fes­sion­als at the top of their game.

Ter­rence Howard, who plays the lead char­ac­ter, mu­sic mogul Lu­cious Lyon, at­tributes part of the se­ries’ suc­cess to its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a dif­fer­ent kind of black­ness.

“When was the last time we saw a rich black fam­ily in a prime-time se­ries? The Cos­bys, who were up­per-mid­dle class? There were the Jef­fer­sons be­fore that, but who else since then?” he asks.

“We have been ‘movin’ on up’ [re­fer­ring to The Jef­fer­sons se­ries’ theme song] since the 1970s, and so I think it is a new rep­re­sen­ta­tion of us that also makes the show res­onate.”

Howard and co-star Taraji P Hen­son, who plays his for­mi­da­ble ex-wife Cookie Lyon on the show, are in South Africa as part of Em­pire’s third sea­son pro­mo­tional tour.

“I just knew there would be love here,” says the ac­tress, who won a Golden Globe this year for her por­trayal of Cookie, the hugely pop­u­lar ma­tri­arch of the Lyon fam­ily.

“And we knew there would be love from our fans here be­cause they’ve been fol­low­ing our work for many years, and telling us on so­cial me­dia, and ask­ing when we would come and see them. “Now we are here, and it has been amaz­ing!” Howard – who por­trayed Nel­son Mandela in 2011 in Dar­rell Roodt’s biopic Win­nie Mandela, along­side Jen­nifer Hud­son – added that, as African-Amer­i­cans, they did not feel like out­siders in South Africa.

“Com­ing here has been amaz­ing be­cause, as AfricanAmer­i­cans, we are starved of our own re­flec­tions – and you land here and you sud­denly have a mir­ror.

“We are see­ing our re­flec­tions in so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and that’s just wonderful for us.”

The pair’s elec­tric on­screen chem­istry is un­der­stand­able when you see how com­fort­able they are around each other, and they in­ter­view al­most as a team.

Em­pire, cre­ated by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, tells the story of a hip-hop mogul suf­fer­ing from a de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease, who must choose be­tween his three sons who are bat­tling for con­trol over his mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness. All this while his for­mer wife, the brains be­hind the busi­ness, bat­tles for her share of con­trol.

“Em­pire is also a Lee Daniels wet dream. Only he could come up with some­thing like this, where even we don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen next,” says Howard of the sea­so­nend­ing cliffhanger.

But, he is quick to add, “I think that’s also what’s ex­cit­ing: we all get on set and have to fig­ure out what­ever the next twist and turn is to­gether.”

Hen­son chips in to say that in the fi­nal episode of sea­son two, “we don’t even know who fell off that bal­cony – it could have been one of us”.

Howard says that not be­ing kept in the loop on the sto­ry­line is what keeps the show fresh.

“It means the show can’t be boxed. It can go wher­ever Lee Daniels’ ge­nius mind wants it to go.”

Hen­son agrees: “We don’t think about do­ing bet­ter than the last sea­son, but about just do­ing re­ally great work now with what­ever sea­son we are shoot­ing, with a re­ally great cast.

“We get a new script ev­ery week, and we walk into this fun house to­gether,” she says.

“And we’ve had love from places we hadn’t even an­tic­i­pated, like Ja­pan, Ger­many and lots of other coun­tries, and it re­ally just shows how peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate good art.

“It’s not just a black show; it is a good show, and peo­ple can tell.”

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