The second season premiere of Empire opens on a #FreeLucious rally in Central Park. The crowd falls quiet when a gorilla in a cage, thrashing against the bars, is lowered to the stage, to the sound of suspenseful orchestral music that wouldn't be out of place in the King Kong score.
But when the gorilla removes its mask, the person beneath proves to be none other than Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the Lyon family matriarch herself, looking stunning in a feathered Gucci dress.
"How much longer are they going to treat us like animals?" she asks, referring to the U.S. prison system and its disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans.
An interview with Vulture, Empire costume designer Paolo Nieddu explains the inspiration for this unforgettable styling: Marlene Dietrich, who changed out of a gorilla suit mid-song in 1932's Blonde Venus.
But what Nieddu fails to mention is the cartoonishly racist nature of his source material.
Like any good Pre-Code movie, Blonde Venus is bonkers. Dietrich stars as a singer driven to sinful nightclub gigs to pay for her sick husband's treatment. She performs that gorilla number, a song called "Hot Voodoo," in front of a chorus line of spear-toting white dancers in blackface.
Dietrich's character even dons a blonde Afro wig of her very own.
As for the lyrics to "Hot Voodoo"—well, they speak for themselves:
Hot voodoo, black as mud
Hot voodoo in my blood
That African tempo has made a slave
Hot voodoo, dance of sin
Hot voodoo, worse than gin
I'd follow a caveman right into his cave
"Hot Voodoo" is a deeply, wildly, unabashedly problematic artifact. In 1932, Hollywood was closer in time to the Civil War (which began 71 years prior) than to the present day, 73 years in the future.
But Empire hopes to take ownership of this troubling scene, in an effort to give it a new, subversive meaning. Now it's a black woman, not a white woman, who puts on the gorilla suit, and she uses the imagery of imprisonment to underscore her speech about racial inequality in America.
It's still jarring as hell, but maybe that's the point.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.