Will the Real Cookie Lyons Please Stand Up?

Like the rest of the country, I am just enthralled by this new show, Empire.

If you haven’t heard, Empire is FOX’s latest hit show depicting the Lyon family at the center of a hip hop musical empire that’s been torn apart by the mother and father’s past demons in the drug trade, a prison sentence and a ruthless competition to see which Lyon son can come out on top as the world’s biggest music star. In only the first three episodes, Empire has done a masterful job of featuring a new school of actors alongside some of the industry’s biggest stars including: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Gladys Knight, Gabrielle Sidibe and even Naomi Campbell.

The show’s success has been completely unprecedented. The show has premiered with record breaking numbers; executives at FOX were so impressed with the public’s reaction to the show that Empire has already secured a second season.

It’s a plot-line we’ve never seen before on television (at least not that I can remember) and the characters grab your emotions and your sympathy fast because they’re complex and familiar. I’m pleased with Lee Daniels’ work because he’s given us a portrayal of the politics and relationship dynamics of the music artists we watch each day (and the hip hop managers propping them up). This could have been its weakness. It could have been overly reliant on Law and Order SVU’s storytelling method of borrowing from the headlines and making campy reenactments of stories that we already know the ending to. Yet this portrayal is nuanced enough to mirror those of our own families, making the characters even more real. The characters’ personalities and the ways that they interact with each other are visibly well researched. They embody the richness of the classic literary narratives that inspired the show like King Lear and Lion in the Winter, showing the timelessness of such stories by putting it’s own twist with the cultural trends and hot-button issues (namely homophobia among blacks, violence in the music industry and even criticism of President Obama) in the 21st Century.

I’ve been particularly taken with Henson’s leading role as Cookie Lyon, the matriarch of the hip hop empire (Empire is of course the name of the major record label that’s at the center of the show). Her character nobly decided to go to jail by herself and take accountability for her and her husband’s history as drug dealers. As a result, her partner, Lucious (Howard) could start their record label and raise their family using the drug money they raised while Cookie served her 17-year prison sentence.

Cookie is interesting not just because of her fiery personality and her flashy outfits. Henson has often amused us with her portrayal of flamboyant black women, perhaps a weakness on past casting directors’ placement of her of sometimes limiting, stereotypical roles. But she seems at home walking in Cookie’s shoes, showing a mother’s passion for her family in the heaviness of her words and the tempered yet forceful way she struts across the screen. With her quick tongue, her wit and her street smarts, Mrs. Lyons may just be America’s new favorite mom.

Cookie is also interesting because she’s a depiction of the black women that are the backbone of the hip hop industry, the women who made sacrifices, had business strategies and talent that helped the hip hop business mobilize in the way it has. Cookie’s narrative is different from a P. Diddy, a Dame Dash, an Irv Gotti. But Cookie’s narrative is just as important.

In fact, Cookie makes me think of some of hip hop’s most famous yet frequently forgotten female managers. In an interview, Henson said that Cookie is based on Henson’s own father, but she actually makes me think of women like: Debra Antney of Mizay Entertainment and former manager to Nicki Minaj and Gucci Mane; Sylvia Robinson, the singer and the producer of the Sugar Hill Gang; even maybe Donda West, Kanye West’s deceased mother. Each of these women have fascinating life stories of their own but they’re often buried under the fame and exploits of the artists they manage. Maybe Cookie’s central role on the show will make people pay more attention to the women that have made some of hip hop’s biggest stars into who they are today.

It sounds lofty, I know. But a girl can dream.

Cheers to Empire for being yet another show to give well-deserving black actors mainstream success. I for one will be tuning in week, after week, after week.

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