Empire, the new music-drama from FOX, is a humongous hit. It follows hip-hop mogul Luscious Lyon (portrayed by Terrence Howard) as he prepares to take his record company public, AND secretly battles ALS with less than three years to live. Taraji P. Henson plays his ex-wife, Cookie, who co-founded Empire with Luscious using drug money and was imprisoned for 17 years as a result.
Fresh out of prison, Cookie is rude, crude, uncouth, ghetto, inarticulate, violent and foul-mouthed. She is a walking barrel of poor stereotypes about black women. On playing this role, Taraji said:
At the end of the day, this is important work. It’s challenging people to think. People are pissed; there are black people who think we can’t show this side of the race, but this is human; white people identify with this! This has nothing to do with color; people identify with this because it’s human stuff.
I always have to rein her in. The writers are so excited because I’m so uninhibited — they write really big. I make a conscious effort to sit on it. What happens if you play her big all the time? Then she becomes a stereotype and no one cares.
I’ve followed the show because it addresses issues that I’ve not seen before with black TV characters: terminal illness/end of life care, homophobia and so forth. While I don’t identify with Cookie, Taraji P. Henson does a damn good acting job with the character; she completely overshadows Terrence Howard and he’s the lead. Something else to be noted – while Cookie’s lack of social decorum is cringeworthy to watch, she’s not a one-dimensional character. Cookie isn’t JUST an ex-con hoodrat; she has several redeeming qualities, namely that she is fiercely protective of her sons, especially middle child Jamal who is gay and relentlessly bullied by Luscious. She is also extremely intelligent with good instincts about people and ability to read situations.
I also see Cookie a bit differently since she exists as a fictional character within the realm of scripted TV, versus women with real life reputations on a reality show. Any good drama will build robust character arcs in which characters change, learn or overcome flaws through the duration of the series. First they become aware of their flaws, then realize how those flaws are disrupting their goals and finally work on change. Their redeeming qualities make you beg for them to overcome their flaws because you want them to succeed. I suspect that over the course of a season, Cookie will become more polished. I don’t watch those Bravo or VH1 shows but I am not aware of any real introspection or growth that happens, within some context, with the women who participate in them. They just seem to promote negativity in hopes of garnering eyeballs.
Have you tuned into Empire? If so, what do you think?