There are a few spoilers from the pilot episode of Empire in the first paragraph, but this story is too good to miss.
Fox’s newest drama Empire already has a lot of moving parts, but it’s not only the narratives that are complicated, as some of the show’s characters have points-of-view that can be highly controversial.There’s a flashback in the premiere where Terrence Howard’s bigoted Lucious Lyon tosses his very young son into the garbage outside because he innocently put on women’s clothing. A rough scene to watch, made even rougher knowing that the moment was plucked right from the childhood of Oscar nominated director and show co-creator Lee Daniels.
Speaking with Deadline about the sudsy drama, Howard shared how it felt to film the scene in front of Daniels, who directed the episode.
Lee Daniels was that little boy and his father put him in the trash can. Watching Lee while we were shooting this — at one point, he had to look away because he was in tears, because he was facing it. His mother was also there on the set. It was cathartic for Lee. Lee would not allow me to show any compassion in the scene. He reminded me how much Lucious loved little Jamal, but my need for the boy to be a strong man was greater than my need to show my love to him. That was a difficult scene.”
On a premium cable network, a scene like that would have been dragged out and weighed down to maximize the horror of the situation, but it’s delivered as an effectively shocking slam-bang here. We already had ten inklings that Lucious didn’t get Empire Entertainment to where it is by being a nice guy who follows a strict moral code preaching equality for all mankind. And that gut-punch showed viewers just how ruthlessly undignified Lucious is capable of being, while also building the fractured backstory of Jamal, Lucious’ more talented musician son, played by Jussie Smollett.
Had this just been an event that came from the imagination of screenwriter Danny Strong, it would have been awful enough. But knowing that Daniels’ life and family played such a big part in it adds a layer to the scene, and to the show as a whole. Filmmakers sneak their lives into their work all the time, and here’s hoping some of Daniels’ happier memories also make their way in.
This first season of Empire tells the story of the mini-mogul Lucious coming to terms with his impending medical problems by choosing one of his sons to run the going-public company, all while re-accepting the troublesome former matriarch Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) into everyone’s lives after she gets out of jail. It’s a solid set-up for big melodrama that obviously heads in dark directions.
Find Empire on Fox every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET.