Empire's Taraji P. Henson: 'Shows With People of Color Can Make Money'

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The secret to Empire‘s success?

“What you’re seeing is that shows with people of color can make money, they can be successful,” series star Taraji P. Henson said Saturday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, when asked about the (already renewed) freshman drama’s cast, which is atypically diverse for a broadcast offering. “And when things make money, people get interested. People want to be a part of it.”

Henson’s middle TV son, Jussee Smollett, echoed those words, saying: “People want to see people that look like them, and they want to see people that do not look like them.”

So why has it taken this long for a broadcast network to serve up a primetime soap opera centered on an African-American family? “It was time,” series cocreator Lee Daniels said plainly. “[Cocreator] Danny [Strong] came at me with this idea after [we did the 2013 film] The Butler, and it was just time.”

Empire also has been lauded for bringing to the fore the touchy topic of homophobia in the African-American community, through hard-to-watch sequences in which family patriarch Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) verbally and physically abuses his closeted gay son, even when Jamal was but a tyke.

“Homophobia is rampant in the African-American community, and men are on the DL — they don’t come out,” Daniels observed. “And I wanted to blow the lid off [that].”

As for the at-times rough language and epithets that come with the derision of Jamal, “We are not doing PC [politically correct] shows,” Howard explained. “We are behind closed doors in a family situation, telling it as honestly as possible. Because that [homophobia] is what’s taught in most [African-American and Latino] households throughout the world.”

By depicting the truth of those despicable dynamics, “We’re giving people the opportunity to see what they’re doing is painful,” Howard said. “I hate that I have to carry that mantle [as Lucious, but] I’m glad I could show the African-American community, ‘This is what you’re doing to yourself.'”

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52 Comments
  1. Well, The Cosby Show proved that long ago. How about The Jeffersons?

  2. JEF says:

    I think that addressing homophobia in the black community is important.

  3. Drew says:

    I hate being told that a show or movie is important because of issues and all of that. Just make a good show with good characters. If you do that, people will watch. If the motivation is about proving a point or pushing an agenda, people will get tired of it quickly and it will become a joke.
    They’re not changing the world, they’re making a soap opera. They need to stop acting so full of themselves.

    • Jennifer says:

      Except this serves both purposes, so I don’t see why you’re commenting. It matters because it does show that TV dramas with casts of non-white people can be critically acclaimed, make money and have tons of viewers. It’s also an amazing show, and it’s very well done. It’s not acting “full of themselves” to talk about how groundbreaking it is to have a full cast of black actors in 2014, something that should have been achieved ages ago.

      • Drew says:

        And as a side note, that is great. But to put the color of the cast above, or even equal to, everything else turns me off.
        New Girl has an incredibly diverse cast. But if they went around telling people that it was important to show how people of different colors and backgrounds interact, I would be turned off by it. I don’t mind if shows feature a cast of one race or a diverse cast, or explore issues. But the people making it should just see their characters going about their lives.
        Conflict and struggle is interesting. Lessons and agendas are not. I don’t know if my point is getting across properly.

      • TigerLIL says:

        I agree with Jennifer contrary to popular belief Black people, African American what ever you want to call them have a unique culture that is to be observed too and it’s nothing wrong with addressing issues that we go through in our community. I have no problem with doing it in an artistic way. Besides we need to see ourselves on TV more in situations we can identify with so it can stop seeming as if we are not on the planet. If you don’t like the show and its content, watch something else. I’m with Cookie on this the streets and its tales are not for everybody that is why they made side walks so you can do just that, walk away….lol

    • Ricardo says:

      Not even a good soap.

    • Temperance says:

      But, you see, they ARE changing the world – as was noted in the article. And to be honest, we need to see more issues on television. Though escapism through TV is a good thing, it’s also become the great mesmerizer (along with pro sports) – a great way to keep the general public constantly and highly distracted/uninformed. We have quite a number of massive problems, and hiding you head all the time in the television is to all of our detriment. Don’t spend all of your free time fiddling while Rome burns.

      • Isobel says:

        Great comment ;)

      • Drew says:

        I never said that fiction can’t be important, but how it effects a person or a society isn’t what the people making it should be concerned with. As a writer or an actor, your job isn’t to teach people or to change the world. If you do your job well (telling good stories with good characters) everything else just happens. If you go into it thinking that it is important and changes the world, you are coming from the wrong place.
        What is important is a personal thing for the viewer. What completely changes my life could be something that someone else sees as a throwaway episode of a stupid show.

      • TigerLIL says:

        Now that’s a good one…LOL

    • Eran says:

      If in 1993, a daytime soap opera, One Life to Live, was able to blow the lid off date rape and make it a (inter)nationally-discussed topic, then do not, by any means, knock television shows’ capacity for bringing about change or at the very least, widespread awareness to topics that would otherwise remained buried deep under the carpet in a thick cloud of shame and silence.

      • Drew says:

        And I think that Deep Space Nine managed to tell a really relevant story about the struggle of an oppressed religious people like the Jews fighting for the right to exist… But someone else probably just sees a cool space show. It wasn’t their job to change the world, no matter what topics they explore. Their job is to tell a good story and if it makes people think, that is a happy coincidence.
        I don’t like being preached at and if that is how they want to promote the show, I am out. I don’t need Glee 2.0 telling me how I should think.

        • Dennis says:

          I agree with Drew, make a good show and I will watch it but turn it into some agenda driven propaganda machine and it starts to eclipse the enjoyment factor for me. the focus should be on story and entertainment not trying to push an agenda. I like Empire and so far it’s addressing some issues in a very organic way. the only problem I have is it seems to be using stereotypes for the characters which worries me.

    • evababy says:

      This is in direct response to oft stated assertion that people will NOT watch a show that features leads or prominently placed actors of color. This has been stated time and time again and in almost all areas of media (except music). It is the given reason why publishers don’t publish diverse books (People won’t relate).. It is the given reason why magazines didn’t put models of color on covers (People won’t relate). It is the number one reason given for NOT casting POC in tv and films (People won’t relate)… most recently it was THE reason given for casting white actors in roles that should have gone to non-whites in the Exodus movie or the Noah’s Arc Movie (White people are Universal. They represent all of us). So no, these actors aren’t just going around pushing an agenda. They are pointing out a fallacy of flawed “conventional” wisdom.

  4. So there were also Different Strokes, Gimme A Break, and Family Matters – yet, those were still sitcoms. Has there really not been a drama in this category before, at all?

    • Lizo says:

      Nothing on a major cable network no. Look at any show you watch, how many people of colour are on it? if there is more than one, do they have names? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk to each other about something other than a white person? It’s a simple test, but most of what’s on TV fails.

  5. Pearl says:

    I am enjoying Empire. I do have a comment regarding homophobia in the Black community. I am 60 years of age and ihomosexuality has always been acknowledged. James Baldwin was an open homosexual who was revered as was Moms Mabely. In addition The Jewel Box Review was widely supported by the community whenever it came to the Appollo in Harlem. The concept of homophobia is new and has to be clearly defined. As I see it a person does not have to agree with homosexual acts to respect homosexual people. The axiom is live and let live. On an end note it is my perception that we should not define ourselves by our sexual preferences because we are so much more.
    I agree with Mr. Howard’s observation however it must be noted that the practices that are being used by Lucious are very much “The American Way” starting with the founding fathers!

    • Eran says:

      That one should even think “agreement” is needed as some form of validation shows the bias and presumed moral superiority in all its true colours. My life and equal rights should no more have to depend on ANY heterosexual’s “agreement” to who I go to bed with and whom I love than theirs should, on mine.

  6. CBWBDK1 says:

    I couldn’t care less about the color of the actors. If it’s a good show i’ll watch it, if it’s not then i won’t.

  7. DMCo says:

    I don’t know about other people’s TV viewing habits but I watch a variety of shows. What attracted me to Empire? Henson!! I love her acting and follow her shows. Empire’s writing and acting drew me in quickly not because it’s a “black show” (because I’m white) but because it is fresh and entertaining and well acted.

  8. yurie says:

    Sucks when race is brought into the picture (no pun intended). I wish a show would be judged based upon acting, storyline, direction, music etc etc… :-/

  9. Taraji P. Henson was so down to earth and normal during her time as part of the cast of Person Of Interest. Now, she’s got this looking down the nose at everyone else attitude and look that goes way beyond method acting for her new role. It’s like she’s come out of her shell and become Queen “PayAttentionToME” Henson. Experiencing her persona and public behavior have caused me to do a 180 on my (former) attitude about her. Too bad.

  10. Abby says:

    Growing up, I watched as much Family Matters and Fresh Prince as I did Full House and Boy Meets World. With that worldview, it basically blew my mind to become an adult and realize that having characters/families of color was still such an almost taboo subject in the world of TV. And its even worse that were STILL having this conversation and ive been an adult for a while now. It kills me that Taraji has to be quoted saying something that has ALWAYS been obvious to me, and even more that there are execs out there who still think its the 1970s.

    • Abby says:

      Even if the issue here is dramas, I think that America’s willingness to watch black families/athletes/scientists on TV in large numbers kind of proves that its more the TV execs who didn’t know how to promote black dramas, or were afraid to even go there. But its was all a socially constructed bias that, hopefully, we can all move on from now because the formulas work and they’re successful, just like they’ve long been for comedy/sports.

  11. Oreos please! To open a show with gay sex and disrespect to the President? Turned off!!!! MONEY 💰&POLITICS! Gay anything is wrong! AfroBrown doesn’t support gay!!!!!

    • Drew says:

      Your post is filled with bigotry, ignorance and political backwardness, all in one short paragraph. Kudos for being efficient.

  12. Taraji P. Henson is an amazing artist – who cares what color her skin is. What I want to watch are engaging shows that have characters with depth. I don’t really care about what color anyone skin is and who then go to bed with at night. We all need to get past our prejudices and enjoy humanity and life.

  13. H says:

    “people of color can have money, be successful”…..in this show thanks to a lucky drug deal. Hardly the best example of “burden of representation”.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      Wow, way to take a part of a quote out of context. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself. “What you’re seeing is that shows with people of color can make money, they can be successful.”

    • jinx says:

      I agree. The patriarch is a murderous thug, the main female characters are fighting over a cheat, the college educated son is a lunatic while his wife is an easily manipulated sex toy, and the only stable character is a homosexual. Preach much? This show is filled with negative stereotypes. Not good writing at all.

  14. poppy canty says:

    Great Empire has been renewed! Now how about dressing Gabourey Sidibe in outfits that enhance her figure. Money is certainly not lacking, but the right stylist should be hired. She is a full figured lady and as such deserves to be properly outfitted. There are many examples of full figured ladies on TV who are dressed with details to enhance their figures.

  15. grrarrg says:

    I haven’t watched the show, but the advertising for it makes it seem like this particular black family is involved in drug-dealing. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad show, but if they’re going to make a big deal about featuring black characters, it’s a shame they couldn’t have focused on respectable characters. Again, I know I haven’t seen the show, and maybe it’s not what I think it is, but it seems (based on the advertisements) to be exploiting negative stereotypes.

  16. Cathy says:

    Terrible show, I couldn’t believe that the kid peed, and then talked bad about Obama. I was so discussed that black people our always saying how bad there treated and then for them to make themselves look so class less. I turned it off. I’m a big Obama fan and don’t want to here comments about him.

  17. A Clockwork Apple says:

    So Fox cancels Gang Related but this gets picked up after 2 shows???? Mind blowing….

  18. Noni Lovechild says:

    Now we will have more black boys wanting to be rappers and thugs instead
    of Scientist, Engineers and doctors. More young girls wanting to make their thing go drip drop. More teen pregnacies and the prisons and those who profit off them.

  19. Crital says:

    I really enjoy watching Empire.Taraji and Terrence both are remarkable at what they do and their chemistry together is always present!!This also introduced me to many new upcoming talents.This show is definitely here to stay as long as the writers stay focus and don’t listen(read between the lines)LOL meaning if it’s not broken why fix it!! LOVE THIS SHOW

  20. Sonny says:

    um I’m Latina and Latino men are known for being effeminate and sensitive. I hate generalizing because people are individuals, but to say homophobia is rampant in Black and Latino households is untrue. Perhaps in the urban environment is the proper way to look at it. I know a few white boys that are “hood” who would probably beat their sons too if they knew he was on the low with another dude. It’s all about where you come from. Go to South America and you’re going to see some seriously bisexual men everywhere.

  21. I love the show I love Rashid p.Henson I like to be on the show