The cast and creators of Empireare embracing the show's label as a soap opera, but they're also championing a deeper agenda.
"Homophobia is rampant in the African-American community, and men are on the DL. They don't come out [and] they're killing our women," creator Lee Daniels told critics at the Television Critics Association winter previewsSaturday. "I wanted to blow the lid off of it, and of homophobia, in our community."
The vehicle for doing that is the character of Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the gay son of protagonist Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), whose sexuality is the subject of his father's ire. (Lucious is partially based on Daniels' own father.)
"What we're doing is telling a little bit of the story of Lee growing up in that way, but it's really a bigger part of what's happening throughout the entire world," Howard told critics. "We are not doing PC shows. We are behind closed doors in a family situation and trying to tell it as honestly as possible. The things that my father said to me because of his homophobia frightened the devil out of me. ... I would have never been friends with Jesse if I had grown up to be the man that my father taught me to be, but that's what's taught in most [African-American and Latino] households throughout the world. What we're really trying to do ... is give people an opportunity to see what they're doing is painful. It's crushing someone that could be beautiful."
In a flashback scene in the pilot episode, Lucious takes a 4-year-old Jamal outside and literally throws him in a trash bin after he catches the boy wearing his mother's (Taraji P. Henson) heels. The sequence is based on actual events from Daniels' childhood.
"I hate the fact that I have to carry that mantle, because I have to play it to the full hilt," Howard told critics. "When Lee had me take that kid down the stairs and put him in the trash can, it was with no apologies associated with it, because that's what happened to him. ... The fact that he survived that is a beautiful thing."
At the same time, Howard fielded a question that had also been lobbed at Fox executives earlier in the day - about whether domestic abuse accusations that he's faced in real life should have precluded Empire's creators from working with him.
"I don't think they took any of that stuff into consideration," Howard said. "I think they looked at the talent and power of right now, and this moment, and how people have grown and where they're going to ... and I'm so thankful to them for doing that. ... The only person that can really make the final judgment is the judge in court and God, at the end of the day." (Howard has never been convicted of a crime.)
Added Daniels: "I am so proud to be working with him."
Empire - whose second-season renewal was announced this morning - is also the only drama on prime-time television anchored by a nearly all-black cast and proves that "shows with people of color can make money," according to Henson. The cast and producers are optimistic that it will spark a trend - both in the depiction of gay stories and black stories on television.
"What it shows is that people want to see people that look like them on television," Smollett says. "They also want to see people that do not look like them on television. They want to see a representation of our world on television, and our world is not one color."
"[Homophobia] is so real and it is happening to so many people, has happened to so many people," Smollett added. "To children and young people that are questioning their sexuality or know for certain their sexuality, if they can look at someone and see themselves in Jamal, that's incredible. I embrace that fully."
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.