'Empire' brought #BlackLivesMatter to primetime television

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For those fans of Empire who waited for months to see the premiere of the show’s second season, surely the episode did not disappoint. An unexpected and welcomed part of the Fox television drama’s season opener was Empire’s hat tip to the Black Lives Matter movement. Empire brought the movement to primetime in an unprecedented way, and it gave viewers something to think about.

SPOILER ALERT: To be more specific, the family patriarch Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) is in prison — and rightly so, because he’s a dirty dog — and estranged matriarch Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) and the family stage a star-studded #FreeLucious concert in which Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the headliner. Lucious is running the company from federal lockdown, while Cookie is planning a hostile takeover of the family business through the $250 million help of investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei).

The visual symbolism — including the “Free Lucious” banners and the highly political music and statements about black men trapped in the criminal justice system and victims of the police — was a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of #BlackLivesMatter, its impact on the black community and popular culture, and the ways in which it has altered the political discourse.

In one particularly controversial part of the concert scene, Cookie emerged from a gorilla suit and a cage. “How much longer are they going to treat us like animals? Because that’s what it feels like, I’m telling you from experience,” she said. “Did you know there are 1.68 million black men being held under mass incarceration in America’s prison system today, right now?”

Granted, one can take issue with how Cookie attempted to commercialize the movement and to use the cause to ostensibly advocate for someone such as Lucious Lyon — although we know she can’t stand him and wants to use Lucious to impress Whiteman and gain control of Empire Entertainment. The American criminal justice system unfairly ensnares black men, this is true. And there thousands upon thousands of black men who should not be in prison. However, Lucious Lyon would not be one of those, as he is no poster child for innocent brothers. We know this is all entertainment, but I just wanted to make a point.

At the same time, the episode also cautions us on how we risk getting it twisted if we aren’t careful and start to fight for the wrong causes — or the wrong people. After all, Cookie looked for support for the #FreeLucious campaign from Rev. Al Sharpton (played by himself), who wasn’t touching the issue, because word on the street was that Lucious had blood on his hands.

When social activism captures the hearts and minds of a society, we would expect that to trickle down into our popular culture, including the music, television, films, and other mass media. So, when Janelle Monáe released her protest song “Hell You Talmbout” as a tribute to black victims of police violence, and when the ABC series Scandal paid homage to Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, with its “Lawn Chair” episode, it shows how #BlackLivesMatter has permeated the public consciousness and become mainstream, though hopefully not compromised.

The Empire season premiere showed that a network TV show can take on cutting edge political issues and deliver a strong message in primetime. And we need to see much more of this.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove