How the ‘Empire’ Strikes Black Love and Family Values
Michael Lavine/ Fox

What makes Empire such a guilty pleasure of a hit in prime-time television is the richly-layered portrayal of its two leading characters, Cookie and Lucious Lyon, deliciously played by Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. Once married, now divorced, though still grudgingly in love and entangled in each other’s lives and egos, Cookie and Lucious expose all the messiness and longings that mark the best and the worst in our love relationships.

Their own relationship is complicated, tortuous, and consequently, rises to the level of epic. We have never seen Black life or Black love portrayed quite like this before on a network television series. And judging from the ratings, Blacks and Whites alike love what we are seeing.

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For those who missed the first season, Empire revolves around ‘round-the-way girl Cookie Lyon and her dog of an ex-husband, Lucious Lyon. Cookie is the smack-talking, kick-over-the-tables sister who took a fall for Lucious, doing 17 years of hard time after being busted for drug dealing, the venture she and Lucious were in together, and the profits from which financed their hip-hop and R&B recording business, Empire. The business is now huge, and Lucious is now wealthy, heading an empire that he is about to take public. Cookie, just released from prison, is out for blood and her share of the profits.

Lucious held it down while Cookie did the time. He built the business and finished raising their three sons, two of whom are recording artists on the Empire label, and one of whom is gay. The third and oldest son is bipolar and Empire’s chief operating officer. Lucious also held it down with another woman, a smart and beautiful biracial sister that he made an Empire senior executive and has promised to marry before his clock winds down. We learn early on that Lucious is dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

Like all of the great prime-time television soap operas that have gone before—Dallas, Dynasty, The SopranosEmpire, at its core, is a juicy dish about family, exposing all of the dysfunction and drama, the power conflicts and the tough love that run through many, if not most families. A formidable patriarch is typically at the center of any family that becomes an empire. So too is his woman, who must be just as formidable in her own way if she is to stay even with him. Think J.R. and Sue Ellen Ewing, Tony and Carmela Soprano.

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Now think Lucious and Cookie Lyon: bold and bad, married, divorced, parents, business partners. They fight, have hot sex, argue about the kids, and operate from a set of family values as real and legitimate as any other in America’s complex and diverse family structures. They just do it Black style.

Lucious is the quintessential patriarch. At his flawed center he is a family man who lavishly provides for, takes care of and employs his own. He may be shamelessly intolerant—an equal opportunity hater of gays, the mentally ill or the White girl who married into his Black family—but Lucious is also the kind of brother women inevitably fall for, just like Cookie did. Handsome and charismatic, he is strong, confident, successful and uncompromising. Even in the face of death, he maintains a sort of stoic swagger. He turned the Black-man-drug-dealing stereotype into the American dream of empire building, becoming a music mogul, a classic up-by-your-bootstraps Black American success story straight from the underclass. Yes, like many men, he is a bigot and a cheat, yet he loves his family in his own chauvinistic way, and he loves the only woman he ever made his wife in a way that you can only feel with your first true love.

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Like the majority of Black women who are incarcerated, Cookie went to jail because of a man. Yet her 17 years of loyalty to a husband who was hardly loyal to her led to a kind of bitterness that has congealed into raw power. She is back with a vengeance, fierce and fabulous and hilarious in that way only sisters can be when they know their man for real and know how to call him on his crap for real. “You need to get rid of that fake-ass Lena Horne,” Cookie tells Lucious with a mix of scorn and amusement about his biracial girlfriend, whom she later calls “a fake-ass Halle Berry.” When her youngest son falls in love with a beautiful woman who is more than 20 years older than he is (wonderfully played by Naomi Campbell), Cookie calls the woman out on her “Yoko Ono Mommy issues.”

It is clearly the Cookie Lyon character that has put Empire over the top in the ratings. Women love Cookie, and that’s because on some formidable level every woman wants to be Cookie. She is fine and smart, talented, shrewd, cunning and takes no prisoners. She says all the things we wish we either had the nerve to say, or had thought to say—to our man or to other women. Like her man Lucious, Cookie goes hard. And like her man who still loves her, there will always be a part of Cookie that loves Lucious.

What women ultimately love about Cookie, though, is that she is a good mother. She agreed to go to jail, leaving “my babies” for 17 years with Lucious because she really believed Black boys would be better off with their father over the long term of a lengthy prison sentence. But unlike Lucious the patriarch, Cookie the mother knows your children have to be loved unconditionally, whether they are gay or suffer from bipolar disorder or married a White girl. To be sure, Cookie argues just as loudly with her three sons and call them out on their own crap as mercilessly as she does their father, but in the end, she loves her kids unconditionally, proving as she did for 17 years, that she will lay down her life for them.

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No, there has never been a couple like Cookie and Lucious Lyon on American network television. This Empire strikes a distinctly different black note. First—and for the first time—we see our relationship drama played out against a backdrop of wealth and power and glamour. Black people are so beautiful and well turned out in Empire, so large and in charge. When was that ever portrayed in a prime-time dramatic network television series? The lush, pulsating hip-hop and R&B rhythms that underscore each episode, along with the grand art works by Black painters such as Kehinde Wiley showcased in Lucious’s sumptuously-appointed home and office, connote that for one hour a week we get to enter an empire built on a Black esthetic undergirded by a Black sensibility.

Driving the esthetic and sensibility of Empire is the superb writing of Danny Strong and direction of Lee Daniels, the two men who also executive produce the show. Surprise guest appearances by everyone from Cuba Gooding, Jr., to Mary J. Blige, Courtney Love, Jennifer Hudson, and Estelle continuously pump up the drama. 

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This particular television drama also resonates with certain hot-button issues specific to Black relationships: how darker-skinned Black women feel about lighter-skinned Black women, how we as a community view such things as homosexuality, interracial marriage, mental illness. On the grandest scale these issues are universal, which is why the riveting appeal of Empire cuts across race and gender. Black love lives are as complex and as endlessly fascinating as anyone else’s. Empire has the ratings to prove it, and the wonderful chemistry of Cookie and Lucious Lyon to keep us believing in the imperfect but ever enduring power of Black love and Black family.

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Brooklyn-based writer Audrey Edwards is a former ESSENCE executive editor and co-author of  The Man From Essence with ESSENCE co-founder Ed Lewis.