by Emile DeWeaver
There’s currently an ideological war waging on the tiers in my prison. It’s a war between those who watch Walking Dead re-runs (we don’t have cable, so they’re not re-runs for us) and those who watch FOX’s new show Empire. So while California prison tiers at night are generally quiet because of inmate-enforced noise curfews, Wednesday nights in my prison remind me of uncles watching football on Sunday.
Each side likes to celebrate the turns and twists of its show with sporadic cheers and comments, as if to say to the other camp, Suckers, despair for the show you’re missing! In my biased, but correct opinion, a clear winner emerged this February between Walking Dead and What’s It’s Face.
During the Walking Dead episode where the governor invades the prison with a tank, an avalanche of fervor tumbled from the fifth tier to the first when Mika and Lizzy saved Tyrese. Grown men pounded on lockers for two tiny blond girls with handguns, and as the excitement faded someone yelled out their bars, “Fuck Empire!” Five tiers of prisoners laughed themselves into the commercial break.
I laughed too, but a serious part of me wants to convince the whole world to stop watching Empire.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I initially wrote off the show because TV Guide billed it as the Game of Thrones of the music industry. Now, I’m a writer. I know the first thing we do when we sell a story is to find a popular story concept with which to compare our own, but don’t try to bolster your hackneyed plot by comparing your show to George R. R. Martin’s masterpiece. A drug dealer starts a record company – oh my God, is he black and ‘bout his money? I didn’t see that coming; it’s the red wedding all over again!
Insulted as an intelligent viewer and as a hardworking writer, I mounted an unsuccessful campaign to convince people to give Empire a pass. In my defense, I’m ridiculous. In the defense of everyone who blew me off, my argument lacked proper articulation. “The Game of Thrones of the music industry?” I said, interrupting two gentlemen’s chess game. “Really?”
I’m a right-brain thinker living in a left-brain world. Often I know how I feel before I know why I feel it. My indignation toward Empire’s publicity faux pas was a convenient way for me to explain my instant dislike for a show I’d never seen. I was too busy castigating the idea to think about why it really bothered me. So I’m invoking the Mulligan rule. I hate Empire, and with my history – knowing how counterproductive anger and hate are – I’ve learned to hate very little on this earth.
Empire is about an ex-drug dealer named Lucius who became a gangster rapper who starts a record company with his illicit money. The show belongs to a popular urban genre whose images vaunt vices like arrogance, greed, and the will to kill as virtues. And it’s not that black men don’t sell drugs and start record companies; it’s that, for some Americans, the recklessly depicted personas in shows like Empire will become their dominant impression of minorities struggling to escape poverty.
“That’s not our problem,” a friend of mine told me when I explained my issue with Empire. She graduated from Spellman University and is currently working on her Masters in journalism at Cal Berkeley. She believes that if mainstream America can’t distinguish the difference between a television show and the complexities of urban reality, then that’s “their” problem. “Let them live in ignorance.”
Putting aside the well-documented power of imagery to shape subjective realities through conflation, even in the most enlightened minds, the ignorance my friend references is gunning down black boys in the street. Clearly, misconceptions are all of our problem.
Nowhere was this clearer than when Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I didn’t follow the story closely, because I’m tired of hearing these tales, but I was channel surfing after the verdict, and paused during an interview with Wilson.
Wilson said Brown called him a pussy, said the officer didn’t have the balls to shoot him, and then attempted to take Wilson’s gun. I was shocked. Wilson may as well have said, “The boy walked up to me and committed suicide” because, forgive the generalization, any six-year-old in the ghetto will tell you that’s suicide. In my reality, Wilson’s story sounded ridiculous, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen. Ridiculous things happen all the time. (Did you hear the one about the columnist who refused to watch a show because a promotion compared it to Game of Thrones?)
Wilson’s story didn’t shock me; I lost my breath because in that moment I imagined twelve grand jurors whom I credit with integrity not gasping when they heard Wilson’s story. My breath returned and a somber weight with it. Despite America’s progress toward equality, the divide between the reality of the average poor kid in the ghetto and the reality of mainstream America is gigantic, vertical, and crushing the people on the ground.
Suddenly the looting on television seems less the result of mindless rage and more the very human need for recognition – existential confirmation. Suddenly my eyes water when I see the streets full of protesters chanting, “Black Lives Matter” because I see myself at 16, failing to figure out a healthy way to say I am not invisible!
A television show isn’t responsible for my or anyone else’s travesties, but if the impoverished are invisible to so many, it doesn’t help when those people’s very real lives are eclipsed by sensational bullshit like Empire.
I haven’t even told you why I hate Empire, yet.
My friend from Spellman said she was just happy there is something on TV with which inner-city kids can identify. “They need to see themselves in media,” she said. “Something to look at and say, hey, that’s me.”
I hate Empire because many of the problems that create violent cycles in the inner-city result from a corrupted thought process. Were this piece an essay, I’d explain how this poisonous thought process is just a cracked mirror of the American Dream, but this isn’t the forum for that. What’s worth noting is that the thinking needs to change, and when an inner-city youth who owns a gun and a dope sack watches Lucius make a witty remark before the successful record executive blows his childhood friend’s brains out, I fear what the youth sees is validation that there’s nothing wrong with his worldview.
And there is something wrong.