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Fox's 'Empire' revives 'blaxploitation' genre

Terrence Howard stars as Lucious Lyon in the Fox drama "Empire." EmpirePhotographer: Chuck Hodes

I’m not a TV snob.


I was one of those people who felt like I had suffered a loss when the “Sopranos,” a series about a fictional mob family, ended in 2007.

And all of my friends knew not to call me on Sunday nights because I would be watching HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

Every week, I joined millions of viewers for a new episode depicting murder and mayhem.

But as corrupted as the main characters were, I could still see a speck of decency underneath the layers of corruption.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel that way about Fox’s “Empire.”

OPINION

The series brings together Terrence Howard, as Lucious Lyon, the dying head a hip-hop dynasty, and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, the music mogul’s ex-wife.

Henson’s character spent nearly two decades in prison for a drug conviction. When she gets out, she heads straight to her remarried ex to claim what she believes is her due.

That’s enough family drama.

When you throw in three scheming sons — one gay — homophobia, murder, gutter language and explicit sex, you get what amounts to another reality TV show depicting black people behaving shamefully.

In fact, “Empire” looks like a cheaper version of “Hustle & Flow,” the 2005 film about a pimp turned rapper, who also is played by Howard.

I want to like Lucious, but then he’s disgustedly homophobic. I want to like Cookie because of what she’s been through, but she’s your classic back-stabber.

These are hard-core, conniving, up-in-your-face, ballers and shot-callers, and that apparently has helped make the show a huge hit.

Putting Howard and Henson together on this project was a sure bet for Lee Daniels, the award-winning director who directed “Precious.”

Viewership is so strong, Fox renewed the show after just two episodes. “Empire” is now being touted alongside “American Idol.”

Obviously, I’m not the drama’s target market. I could barely get through three episodes.

But it strikes me as odd that outside of ABC’s “Black-ish,” the comedy with Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross; most of the shows that cast African-Americans in prominent roles have them playing lowbrow characters.

Dare I say it?

I’m not a “gladiator.”

Kerry Washington started off portraying a powerful mover and shaker on “Scandal. “ Then the next thing you know, she’s having sex in a utility closet with the white, powerful, and married president of the United States.

Sorry, Shonda Rhimes.

That’s just too much slave imagery for me.

Obviously, black actors shouldn’t be confined to playing roles about noble characters.

But what is wrong with creating more shows on network TV that cast blacks as heroes and heroines?

When it comes to roles, a black actor’s choices shouldn’t boil down to acting a fool or acting like a psychopath.

Over a half-century, black actors have gone from the obscurity of re-enacting stereotypical civil rights roles — roles that didn’t give always them their due — straight to depicting stereotypical hyper-sexualized and thuggish roles that have netted them awards.

Actress Viola Davis played a lot of head-hanging maids before being cast as a bad a– in “How To Get Away With Murder.”

She touched on the obvious lack of diversity in Hollywood when she accepted a SAG award, by thanking producers for thinking “a sexualized, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned, African-American woman.”

The support for “Empire” and shows like it reflect how desperate black viewers are for TV programming starring blacks.

Network producers certainly ought to take notice of that.

Still, I can’t ignore that “Empire” is a modern “blaxploitation” movie, or that it portrays the African-American family at its worst.

Maybe the show will surprise me later on.

But the best I can say about it now is that a lot of talented black actors are finally getting paid.