Last night, I appeared on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon discussing the immense success of Fox’s Empire. I was joined by black scholar Dr. Boyce Watkins and Entertainment Tonight‘s Nischelle Turner.
Watkins recently denounced Empire as a “ghetto-fied hood drama” showcasing “coonery” that he refused to support. He stood firmly by his stance during our segment on CNN.
“A lot of black actors and actresses are just tired of being put in the ‘entertainment ghetto,'” Watkins said. “‘The entertainment ghetto’ is basically the place where you have roles that are shows that are specifically designed for black people, where black actors are kind of locked into.”
Turner took a stance supporting Empire, claiming that she show is an authentic depiction of a complex African-American family.
Being a big fan of Empire, I talked about how the show is a cultural phenomenon, opening doors in Hollywood for black actors and shedding a light on the rich diversity of black families.
Watch Dr. Boyce Watkins, Nischelle Turner and Chris Witherspoon discuss Empire on CNN
Today, I want to take a moment to explain a bit more why I respectfully disagree with Dr. Watkins’ claims that Empire has placed the talents of Oscar-nominated actors like Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in the “entertainment ghetto.”
I find it unfair that black television programs face scrutiny that predominately white-scripted dramas do not. You never heard the words “white trash” associated with iconic shows like Dynasty or Dallas.
Many of the black critics of the Empire are so burden by their own self-consciousness that they can’t help but criticize our brand of entertainment. Yes, Empire is ratchet, but it is also uplifting and empowering. This reflects the reality of black America today. I felt that Nischelle Turner did a great job articulating that last night.
“Yes, you have Lucious, who came from the hood, and Cookie who came from the hood, but they have a son who is Ivy League-educated,” she said. “They have a son who is gay and who is coming out but he is the most talented one in that family. It is a very diverse family. If you are calling it ‘coonery,’ then you might be calling the Turner family coonery, because I have a lot of these folks in my family.”
After the second week of Empire, I tweeted that Empire has parted the cultural seas of what has been the stale status quo of network primetime TV. Ten episodes later, I still stand by those words. There has never been show like Empire on a major TV network. Period. The show has made ratings history, starting out with 9.9 million viewers during the pilot episode and growing its audience each and every week. Last night’s two-hour season finale averaged a record 16.7 million viewers.
Those ratings are not the “entertainment ghetto” but rather entertainment royalty. Over 16 million viewers can’t be wrong. Empire has sent a loud and clear message to Hollywood that black TV shows matter.
We are in the midst of a black TV renaissance, with a diverse array of hit shows featuring African-American actors, including Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish and Being Mary Jane, with more on the way.
I’m certain network executives are in meetings today attempting to figure out how to emulate the success of Empire, which may result in more black television programs. Those programs will lead to more roles for African-American actors, and that means even more diversity in our on-air portrayals. In the future, if Dr. Watkins finally finds a black drama series he can get behind, I hope he’ll be able to admit that it’s because Empire was a hit.
Follow theGrio.com’s Entertainment Editor Chris Witherspoon on Twitter @WitherspoonC.