(Caution! Spoilers about Empire ahead.)
Surely you've heard it pop up during a conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement: "If black lives are so important, why aren't black people protesting the violence in their own communities?"
Television pundits have consumed oceans of water and writers have worn down a lot of keys trying to explain why a demand for accountability and justice from law enforcement doesn't negate a need to address violence in black communities; activists in fact say over and over again that they aren't mutually exclusive conversations. Still, in the eyes and social media feeds of many, saying black lives matter without also adding "...which is why we need to root out the criminals in our midst" comes off as hypocritical.
Empire, in the second episode of the so-far-so-good Season 3, subtly and systematically untangled that perceived contradiction in three separate storylines this week.
Particularly on this episode, Empire's characters are walking archetypes, and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is both the focal point for the conversations and the show's moral compass. He's still suffering from PTSD after being shot by Freda Gatz (Bre-Z) in her failed assassination on his father Lucious (Terrence Howard). Of course, Empire has featured all manner of head-thwaking and shooting before, but by making the fan favorite and sensitive son truly suffer over a number of episodes, Empire is banging us over the head to show the impact of violence that's woven in the hip-hop culture integral to the show.
We're not even five minutes in when Jamal is on a radio show where the topic is violence in hip-hop. He defensively tries to brush off Angelo Dubois' (Taye Diggs) assertion that he's suffering, prompting Dubois to give the first of many speeches to follow about guns, black men and our communities. Does he sound sanctimonious? A little, yeah, which perfectly sets up street-wise Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) to paint him as bourgeoisie, soft and undesirable: "He wouldn't know the streets if it shot him in the ass." Being good and noble and upstanding has never been sexy — even when it's chocolate dreamboat Taye Diggs in a suit.
Still, his charitable organization for kids, WOKE (We Organize for Knowledge and Empowerment) is more than just an acronym/slang term that should be convicted of manslaughter due to its blunt force: it's a callout to the countless organizations that exist in real life doing exactly the same work. It's all in the (frequently heavy-handed) dialogue: poverty, lack of educational opportunities, mass incarceration, guns on the street, glorification of street life in music, black self-reliance, black self-victimization and on and on, with the victim (Jamal), the force for change (Dubois) and the code of the streets (Cookie) in a deep, swirling conflict about what's best for black lives. These are the conversations that happen every minute of every day in churches, barber shops, street corners, and HBCU campuses we don't hear much on TV.
"What we're able to do in an entertaining way is really show a conversation — two very valid views on that conversation that if joined together could be more powerful," Jussie Smollett said in a conference call with the press Wednesday. "Angelo has good things to say. There has to be common ground between what they're saying. These are valid points. One does not outweigh the other."
Violence arises again when Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) witnesses Shine (Xzibit) assault someone in the studio for the trivial crime of leering at his sister. Hakeem, as Cookie has acknowledged, ain't about that street life, and he's visibly shaken by the outburst. As much as Hakeem wants to be a fighter he's much more of a lover; here he represents the untold young talents whose chosen path of expression is lined with real danger. This isn't a new theme for Empire, obviously; Lucious' hip-hop kingdom has never specialized in Daisy Age, Africa medallion rap. But in the context of this episode, the looming threat feels acute and important.
In the final scene, Andre's (Trai Byers) encounter with New York's finest sews the sprawling, multi-pronged conversation together with a bow big enough for a Lexus commercial. A black man (coping with a mental illness) is minding his own business, treated as a suspect for no reason, spoken to condescendingly and then, after he tries to assert some speck of dignity vis-à-vis a smart-ass comment, is slammed to the ground and staring up at a gun. Sadly this scene required almost no imagination on the part of writers; they could just pick a story from the feeds on their phones or a newspaper and write what happened verbatim.
Andre's encounter is the easiest mirror to hold up; it's a black-and-white day in the life for many. For others, though, this is an entry point for a bunch of questions. Why wasn't he more polite? Why didn't he just offer up an ID to prove he was telling the truth? They're the type of grating inquires people toss out in situations like this perhaps in an attempt to make sense of what clearly doesn't — just as they do when accusing people of hypocrisy for refusing to talk about black crime.
But in its totality, Empire's second episode presented an almost full picture of the conversations about violence and injustice everyone's either having or avoiding: the painful consequences, the debates, the denials and the influences that make them so prevalent in the first place. So yeah. If you're ever too exhausted to unpack "black on black crime" when someone brings it up in a conversation about Black Lives Matter, you can probably just show them this episode.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.