A DIFFERENT KIND OF BLACKNESS
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.”