An Empire of Triggering Proportions

I don’t have cable, but I do have an antennae that I receive channels through. Sometimes the connection is spotty, so I might rewatch an episode on hulu the next day. That’s what I did with the latest episode of Empire.

Now, I understand that a lot of people think the show is not an accurate depiction of Black people and that it does more harm than good when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes. I get that, but I still watch it…it’s entertaining.

When I finished the last season of OITNB, I said I wasn’t going to continue watching future episodes because of how it ended. I feel like it is important to bring attention to these issues and that doing so through a show that millions of people watch can be useful in mobilizing the cause for antiracist practices. My issue with OITNB was that there was no warning (granted, there’s no warning in real life for those kinds of problems, either), and the scene borrowed specifically from a few real-life cases where police brutality resulted in the death of a Black person. Can you imagine how a family member of someone who died in that way would feel if they were watching that episode of OITNB for entertainment/relaxation/unwinding purposes, only to be blindsided by a portrayal of their loved one dying…again?? I felt like it was really insincere and poorly thought-through.

I just finished watching Empire’s season 3 episode 2. The ending, while completely relevant to what is going on in today’s society, was triggering. Maybe that’s strange because no one in my family has been a victim or survivor of police brutality (to my knowledge), but I wrote a press release a couple of days ago and in it I mentioned how the greater community is affected because we are repeatedly exposed to these acts of violence. It’s vicarious trauma. Now, Empire always has a warning at the beginning of each show, so I can’t call them out on that, but I ended that episode and felt angry, hurt, and confused.

I’m angry because this has gotten to the point that networks are showing it on popular tv shows since many are ignoring these issues in the news or in their neighborhoods. I’m hurt because I feel pain for all of the lives that are taken way too soon by people who are sworn to protect and serve us. I’m confused because I want more attention to these issues, but I don’t know if television reenactments are the most appropriate route to take.

Empire does a great job of highlighting the stigma of mental illness and its reception within much of the Black community. As a mental health clinician and member of the Black community, I can attest to similar experiences within my own family, and the families of Black friends of mine. I definitely appreciate  their raw depictions of intolerance (with certain issues), ideals of masculinity, and the importance of family within the African-American community.

I don’t appreciate the fact that the producers ended the episode on such a major cliffhanger…although, I’m relatively certain that was intentional. Thinking about the nuances of those types of situations and how, literally, one move can be the difference between a life or death situation is eye-opening, in a sense…at least I hope it is for those who don’t regularly consider those aspects. I also think the character they chose to be in this particular scene is interesting, based on the fact that many people are probably sympathizing/empathizing with him due to recent occurrences. Maybe the producers thought that if the audience has an emotional investment in the character that they would take the issue of police brutality more seriously…and they gave us a week to chew on that.

As I’m reflecting on their choice for this, I understand why they might have done it, but I’m still feeling a little conflicted. My heart is heavy. Each day that I am reminded of the deaths of Black people because of racism and systemic injustice, I feel resentful, angry, sorrowful, and sometimes a little helpless. I want to do more to mobilize antiracist policing practices, to garner attention on these issues, and to help the Black community regain a sense of wholeness in their lives. Those are huge goals, I know, and I’m doing as much as I can by joining organizations and taking on leadership roles…but I sometimes am weary because it feels like we’re taking 1 step forward and 20 steps back.

As I’m writing this, Sam Cooke’s song is going around in my head:

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know… a change gon’ come
oh yes it will


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