Writer Alice Childress wrote an unforgettable play produced in 1957 called Trouble in Mind about an aspiring Black actress who loses her job after she questioned the role she was assigned to play, of a Black mother in a period play set in the Jim Crow South who willingly sends her son into a lynch mob. The name of Childress’s play within her play is “Chaos in Belleville.”
In this play, the actress character, Wiletta Mayer, gets shouted at by the white director character Al Manners when Wiletta asks him: “would you do this to your son?” The play ends after this director shouts at Wiletta, then the cast, then ends rehearsal. Childress is making a profound statement on the ability of actors and audience to question stereotypical roles on the mainstream stage and television.
This is the question I want Lee Daniels to ask Danny Strong and all his Hollywood funders who pay him to write stereotypical roles for Black characters in Empire: would you [FOX executive Rupert Murdoch] do this to your son? Would you, co-writer [Danny Strong] do this to your son?
Although I do not want to see Jussie Smollett prosecuted by federal authorities or state authorities, as a Black man and a openly gay or queer man, I simply do not believe his version of the events on January 29, 2019. However I firmly believe that his incomplete story is a result of performing too much of work by Lee Daniels who writes stereotypical roles of Black people.
All Daniels’s characters assume the necessity of assimilating into white society. Jamal Lyon’s motives to be a singer require that he assimilate into white culture.
The excerpt I read from my March 31st reading at Plymouth Congregational of my new book Pauline Hopkins and Advocacy Journalism, was the part about a character in Hopkins’s first 1899 novel Contending Forces, Sappho Clark, who was able to find love because she refused to assimilate into white society. I compared this romantic love to the kind that Amy Ashwood Garvey said she had for Marcus Garvey because of “his love for the African race” (41). The “love” that Daniels shows is quite the opposite in Empire.
What Daniels is doing is showing that the only way to survive is to assimilate, and this hardly believable script about Black life by Daniels translated into Jussie Smollett telling this hardly believable story about what happened on the morning of January 29, 2019. Life imitated art.
What sounded like a lie by Jussie to me is a symptom of bad writing by Lee Daniels. The series shows a Black family backbiting each other for the pursuit of material profit. This is the life that Cookie and Luscious Lyons live. The Lyons are liars. Lyons = lying. The script of Empire is trying to show the glory of the Black bourgeoisie instead of what Lorraine Hansberry said in 1959 that it is the Black writer’s “duty” to show the “myth” of the Black bourgeoisie. Lee Daniels for too long has been trying to make this “myth” a desirable reality.
Within five days after my reading, yesterday, on April 4th, the second anniversary of the founding of the Black Alliance For Peace, at my church, Plymouth Congregational, I saw an essential critic of the work of Lee Daniels speak: Margaret Kimberley.
In 2013, Margaret wrote that writers like Lee Daniels “get the deals to create the images of Black life because they can be relied upon to do the right thing by white people.” The “right thing” for Daniels is showing that assimilation is basically the only option. The “right” thing is promoting the reality, instead of the myth, of the “Black bourgeoisie.” The “right thing” is peddling the lie. This is television writing. Janine Jackson interviewed TV writer Shireen Razack who said (at 15:00) “if we can get rid of those stereotypes and speak to the communities that are being demonized on TV and show them as human beings, it could help with a lot of the problems we’re having in society right now.” However Lee Daniels pushes “the lie” and if we choose to unconditionally defend Jussie Smollett, I believe we are defending a “lie.” The “lie” that we, according to mainstream U.S. liberals, must behave as victims to the presidency and policies of Donald Trump.
This is the lie that Pauline Hopkins’s Sappho Clark character refused when she refused John Langley’s hand in marriage. The lie that Alice Childress’s Wiletta Mayer refused to perform when she knew in her heart that no Black mother would send her son out to a lynch mob.
Our struggle is build a critical mass of viewers who will influence the producers like Lee Daniels to stop telling and selling lies about Black people. -RF.