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How Empire and Being Mary Jane Tackle Politics and Race

The ways both shows address important issues in America range from creative to cringe-worthy.

Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon on Empire   Photo: Courtesy of Fox

The season two premiere of Empire was many things: melodramatic, cameo-packed, assured, and surprisingly, almost aggressively, political. Not just in the diligent topic-du-jour way with which the show has tackled certain hot-button social issues (homophobia! bipolar disorder! religion!), but with a straight-from-the current-climate-of civil-unrest panache.

“Did you know there are 1.68 million black men being held under mass incarceration in America’s prison system today right now,” intones real-life hip-hop producer Swiss Beatz to a crowd of several hundred during the episode’s opening minutes. “Just like my brother Lucious Lyon is being held right now for three months without bail.”

The scene is a perfect encapsulation of both Empire’s charm and ick factor. In the midst of citing the very real, detrimental effects of mass incarceration, Beatz essentially compares the guilty, calculating Lucious Lyon with millions of black men locked up for years, often on nonviolent drug charges. A few minutes later, as if a wink in acknowledgment, Hakeem, Lucious’s son, asks: “Why aren’t we performing for the brothers and sisters who are innocent?”

And, just like that, Empire finds its way back to the (marginally more) thoughtful side.

Even in this notable era of increased racial diversity and political progressiveness on television, finding shows that can deftly make astute sociopolitical commentary without veering into old-fashioned didacticism or resorting to crass headline-hunting can be a difficult task.

Sometimes Empire succeeds in this regard; sometimes it doesn’t. Introducing millions of viewers to contemporary black visual artists, for example, is a fantastic way to use a platform. Other times, as the season two premiere explicitly demonstrates, the results are forced, cringe-worthy, and exploitative.  

In contrast, consider BET’s Being Mary Jane, the sleeper hit that’s been criminally overlooked. Created by Mara Brock Akil, the hour long drama centers on Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union), an ambitious black, late thirty-something news anchor at a fictional Atlanta media company. Like Daniels, Akil is fond of soapbox moments. Last season, for example, Selma director Ava DuVernay appeared as herself on Mary Jane’s fictional show talking about black filmmaking. That same episode featured a segment on human trafficking so detailed it surely stemmed from Akil’s journalism roots (she graduated from Northwestern’s Medill program in 1992). Over the course of a season and a half, Being Mary Jane has tackled human trafficking, the ethics of egg freezing, plagiarism scandals in the Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke mold, and, in the most recent episode, the intricacies of playing the race card.

In that episode, titled “Hot Seat,” an injury sidelines Mary Jane from her anchor duties for several weeks. When she returns, Mary Jane finds that a young, photogenic Latina has filled her seat. In a misguided attempt to return to the news desk, Mary Jane donates money to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition in order to get one of his lackeys to cry racism at the change of anchor.

“This is not a race issue!” bellows the exasperated white network executive. Later, that same exec calls Mary Jane into his office to tell her: “So I get it, I’m not good at race. I’m white. But I am not a racist. And every decision I make every around here doesn’t have to do with the fact that you’re black.”

It’s a subtle, smart scene, one that sympathetically captures both sides of this messy office political drama. Mary Jane’s brazen opportunism complicates the narrative of black victim and white oppressor. And her boss’s assumption—that he can’t be good at race because he’s white—is equally problematic. Both come off looking human, reacting the way real people might grapple with complicated social and political issues. “Hot Seat" demonstrates what these diverse, predominantly black-cast shows can do. It’s hard, but as “Hot Seat” shows, it can be worth it. 

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