Terrence Howard. left, and Lee Daniels speak onstage at a Television Critics Association event in Pasadena, Calif. (Richard Shotwell/Invision via AP)
By: Justin Moyer/Washington Post
For a network that has struggled to draw eyeballs, Fox’s “Empire” — a Terrence Howard-helmed drama about a music mogul and his, well, empire — is a blockbuster that booked 10 million viewers in its premiere earlier this month and reliably lights up the Twittersphere.
For openly gay, African American creator Lee Daniels, “Empire” is politics — and psychotherapy.
Of course, no filmmaker, no matter how well known, needs an excuse to make what Daniels called “black Dynaty” Still, though Daniels was nominated for Best Director for “Precious” (2009), he was snubbed for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” in 2013 — and has complained about being confused with Tyler Perry/ . If putting his name in the title of a movie starring Oprah Winfrey didn’t help his profile, a primetime, hour-long drama on broadcast television can’t hurt.
But this past weekend, Daniels said that “Empire” — in which Howard struggles to accept the sexual orientation of his gay son — is about exposing homophobia in the black community.
“What we’re trying to do is to give people the opportunity to see that what they’re doing is painful,” Daniels said, as the Associated Press reported.
Indeed, in one of the scenes from the pilot, Howard’s character stuffs his son in a trash can after finding him wearing high heels.
“I’m glad that I can show the African-American community that this is what you’re doing to your son, this is what you’re doing to your nephew, this is what you’re doing to the kid down the street,” Howard said of the scene.
The confrontation was raw, but it was real.
“Right now we’re seeing people enjoy the culture of America, the culture of the world,” Daniels said. “We’re showing real life now.”
For Daniels, however, the scene was also real life then. Growing up black and gay in Philadelphia, the director, 55, didn’t have it easy. In fact, the dad-stuffs-gay-son-in-trashcan scene is real.
The heels. The trash can. The dad. All of it. Daniels’s father, a police officer killed on the job in the 1970s, literally kicked his son to the curb when he found Daniels in Daniels’s mother’s red pumps.
“When I was 5, my earliest memory was walking down the stairs in my mother’s red high heel shoes, and my dad — he’s a cop — is down playing cards with the boys and it was not pretty — at all,”he told Ebony last year. “He put me in a trash can and he said that I would never be nothing. He said, ‘You already have it bad, boy, cause you’re Black — now you’re a f–got too.’”
This wasn’t the only time his father expressed his frustration with his son non-verbally.
“When I came out it was because I loathed my dad so much — I couldn’t understand how you could, with an extension cord, beat a 45-pound kid just because he’s aware of his femininity,” he told Out. comparing his plight to that of the illiterate teen mother in his 2009 film. “For me it really created a world where I understood ‘Precious,’ where you learn the power of the imagination. And that’s how it began for me.”
Even as the producer of the Oscar-winning film “Monster’s Ball” (2000), Daniels felt judged by his long-dead dad.
“It’s always when things are really good for me that I feel I’m not worthy of it,” he said. “ … You feel like, ‘I’m nothing.’ It was what my father told me I was.”
Last year, Daniels told Arsenio Hall that he now forgives his father.
“He was embarrassed, I think,” Daniels said of his father. “And I didn’t understand why he was so hard on me about being gay. … I didn’t realize until after I did ‘The Butler’ that at that time he was a second-class citizen.” He added: “He wasn’t a man. And so when he saw that I was gay he thought that that was even — ‘Oh my God, this kid, what is this kid going to encounter?’”
Daniels said he thought his father would change his views were he alive today. And on “Empire,” sexuality is sometimes played for laughs — as in a scene from Wednesday’s episode in which Howard’s onscreen son warns him away from the bedroom where he and his boyfriend make “gay love.”
But for Daniels, the struggle continues.
“Homophobia is rampant in the African American community, and men are on the DL,” he said, as the Huffington Post reported. “They don’t come out, because your priest says, your pastor says, mama says, your next-door neighbor says, your homie says, your brother says, your boss says [that homosexuality is wrong]. And they are killing African American women. They are killing our women. So I wanted to blow the lid off more on homophobia in my community.”