Spoilers ahead if you have not watched the Empire season finale.
"Lucious made me marry Olivia and then he slept with her. And then—let him tell it—he impregnated her and let me believe that Lola was mine. So yes, we have issues with him."
The drama and camp on this season of Empire is so thick you could cut it with a chainsaw.
Empire finished an impressive first season with some of the highest numbers on TV that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, leaves them second only to The Walking Dead. Millions of viewers turn in week after week to see who got shot, who Cookie is ripping apart with a look and a wink, and whether or not Andre will stop acting like a fool and finally take the medicine to help his bipolar disorder. It's campy and fun in a way that throws back to '80s nighttime family-oriented soap operas Dynasty and Dallas, and I laughed as much as I gasped this season. For all of its focus on family drama and the social repercussions of African-American success, the one thing Empire is missing is the uplift narrative—and I'm thankful for that.
The ideology of racial uplift is rooted in the early 20th century, when African-Americans living under the threat of racism thought that promoting the elite class would help people stop brutalizing them. As the National Humanities Center explains, "African-American leaders and public spokespersons, a growing, but small percentage of the entire African-American population, were under constant pressure to defend the image and honor of black men and women," and thought the best way to counter stereotypes was with an uplift narrative. This meant that the African-American upper class "highlighted their function as elites" as a way to "reform the character and manage the behavior of the black masses."
Basically, the uplift narrative insists that if you "act right," white people will treat you better, which we all know now (as detractors did back then) is absolutely not the case. But the uplift narrative remains a pervasive facet of our cultural assumptions about race, with people claiming that rap music is to blame for violence and addiction, questioning the effectiveness and fairness of Affirmative Action, and claiming that Michael Brown deserved to be killed by Ferguson police for being " a thief and a thug." These kinds of respectability politics insist that the only people to blame for systemic violence are the victims themselves, completely deflecting from the systemic issues that created the problem of racism in the first place.
The evidence of Hollywood's favoring of the uplift narrative is prevalent in most of our media, so much so that Spike Lee referenced the "magical negro" trope in a speech he gave at Yale in 2001. Until very recently, people of color were often given limited roles in television and film, usually cast as criminals or the righteous sidekick. Selma star David Oyelowo recently told the Santa Barbara International Film Festival that black people are celebrated more for being subservient.
"No, look, historically—this is truly my feeling; I felt this before the situation we're talking about and I feel it now—generally speaking, we, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative."
That's part of the reason I love Empire for being so over-the-top dramatic without feeling like it has to make excuses for an entire race of people. The show focuses on the modern-day success and wealth of the Lyon family by regularly dipping back into its inauspicious beginnings; no one is obscuring the fact that patriarch Lucious Lyon was a drug-dealing thug, or that his wife Cookie went to jail for 17 years for a drug-based crime he committed. But they're also not framing the characters as people who learned how to straighten-up and fly right—both Lucious and Cookie took the lessons they learned on the streets to run their music company in the same roguish way. Lucious Lyon is a conniving bastard. Cookie drops things like, "Hell wants the devil back and Lucious is on his way" into casual conversation. Oldest son Andre is curing his bipolar disorder with religion, and youngest son Hakeem had sex with his duplicitous stepmother Anika to get back at his father for punching him in the face.
Our other recent black TV heroes flirt with leaving the uplift narrative behind while they break down other boundaries. In the season three premiere, Scandal's Olivia Pope is reminded by her father Rowan that she has to be twice as good to get half as far as her white counterparts, even though she's a wildly successful business woman who is boning the president. How to Get Away With Murder's Annalise Keating might be a slightly psychotic role model to her accidentally murderous students, but her success as a lawyer and professor allow people to turn a blind eye to her other ill deeds. In all three instances, extreme wealth and success opens the door to these characters having more nuanced stories to tell. Does that mean they're subverting the uplift narrative, or improving it?
I loved how Empire was given space to be as unhinged as the nighttime soap operas we've been watching for years by not only focusing on the deviousness of each character, but often not pulling them back from the edge of it. Once Lucious learned that he wasn't in fact dying from ALS, he tried to repair the damage he'd done to his sons by making them compete for his company, but the wheels of hate were already in motion. Rather than end the season on the power of a strong family coming together after a difficult journey, all of Lucious' children, ex-wives, and girlfriends conspired against him to put him in jail and ruin his life. The only people they're interested in uplifting is themselves, and TV is better for it.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.