Further Watching

EMPIRE, "Fake Ass Lena Horne" and the Real Lena Horne by Karina Longworth

Like, apparently, most Americans, my favorite thing on television right now is Empire, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's nutty prime time soap about Lucious Lyon, a gangster rapper-turned-multimedia mogul who finds out he has ALS at the exact moment that Cookie -- his ex-wife/mother of his three sons/mastermind of his empire -- is released from prison after 17 years. Cookie, played by the incredible Taraji P. Henson, blasts into rooms like a hurricane; pretty much everything that happens on the show, she makes happen, and she gets most of the best lines. A major plot this season has been Cookie's rivalry with Anika, Empire Entertainment's new head of A & R and Lucious' new fiancee.

Played by the stunning Grace Gealey, Anika is very light-skinned (the show has introduced us to her black mother and white father), and is a self-proclaimed "debutante." The street-smart Cookie, who still loves Lucious and has given Anika the derogatory nickname Boo Boo Kitty, firmly believes that Anika is too polished and naive to interface with Empire's artists, who have a host of issues ranging from drug addiction (what's up, guest star Courtney Love) to ongoing criminal activity to, in the case of Lucious' own sons, homosexuality, baby mama drama and potentially violent misogyny. Where Cookie can put on a head scarf and manipulate the devoutly Nation of Islam mother of a rapper, Lucious had to protect Anika when her meeting with the same rapper is interrupted by a drive-by. In a variety of different ways, Cookie tells us and the other characters on the show over and over again that Anika isn't able to get her hands dirty, that she isn't street, that she isn't black enough.

At the end of this week's episode, Fox showed a preview of the remaining four episodes of the season, in which Cookie refers to Anika as "fake-ass Lena Horne." This was interesting to me for a number of reasons, not least because this week I published a very special, very long episode of the podcast about Lena Horne. As the podcast details, Lena Horne -- whose skin tone was similar to Grace Gealey's) was signed by MGM in 1942 to represent the hopes and dreams of entire black community. They hired her and agreed, for the first time, never to cast this black actress as a servant or maid, and they did this so that Hollywood on the whole wouldn't have to make any significant changes in its depictions and attitudes towards race -- they could always point to Lena Horne and say, "See?" 

But as my episode explains, this "special treatment" made Lena Horne a pariah within the black Hollywood community, because everybody else was still playing maids, and still being forced to feed into white people's stereotypes about how black people should look and act, in order to get a paycheck. Lena Horne was used to this reaction from fellow black people; as far back as kindergarten, she was taunted on the playground for being "too white," and when her caucasian-style beauty helped her get a promotion at the Cotton Club, the other girls working at the club saw it as a signifier of the racism operating within an establishment that only hired black performers. In Hollywood, Lena wasn't "black enough" to fit in with the black community, but she wasn't white. She was, as she put it, "suspended in midair" between the two communities, and this was a terrible place to be. She became a symbol not of black advancement in Hollywood, as she was groomed to be, but of the double standards that allow people of color who can "pass" between worlds. Because her "special treatment" was still horribly racist and demeaning, Lena Horne eventually told Hollywood they could take their special treatment and shove it, and she became a passionate civil rights activist.

Anika is the least sympathetic character on Empire, and Cookie is pretty much everyone's favorite, and given that, it's pretty remarkable how far the show is willing to go in showing Cookie's frustrations at being surpassed by this lighter-skinned beauty, and how much she expresses that frustration in racial terms (she also has a problem with her son Andre's white wife, who is also pretty much evil, but that's a topic for another day).

There is a lot more I could say about this, but it's also all in the episode. Bottom line: when Cookie compares Anika to Lena Horne, it's a lot more than a wisecrack.