With a premiere that brought in nearly 10 million viewers, Fox looks like it may have a hit on its hands with Empire. For many, the appeal is the realm of absurdity that the show exists in. Everything is exaggerated, every light is brighter, every line delivered with extra gall and every character is a caricature. It’s a fun show even if it isn’t the highbrow drama viewers have become accustomed to during the cable television renaissance of this past decade.
One scene that stuck out in particular for its absurdity is the scene where Lucious, the main character portrayed by Terrence Howard, is so outraged that his son Jamal is being effeminate and wearing his mother’s high heels that he literally throws the boy into the trash.
The scene was so ridiculous that it was laughable and practically unrealistic.
Except it was real and actually happened to series co-creator Lee Daniels.
Daniels is best known as the director of Precious and The Butler and also happens to be openly gay. In 2013 while promoting The Butler, he spoke with Larry King on his show Larry King Now and revealed how his father would beat him for wearing his mother’s high heels.
My dad was playing cards one Sunday with his cop friends and I put on my mother’s red pumps and walked down the stairs. And then I got beat, he beat me severely for it. He beat me really bad, but that didn’t stop me because the following Sunday I put on her blue high heel shoes and walked down the stairs. This time with her purse.
That scene is mirrored in Empire’s premiere and serves as the basis of Lucious putting his son in the trash can.
Earlier this month while doing press for the series, Daniels continued to divulge details of his childhood. While talking with NPR affiliate 89.3 KPCC, he revealed the reality of the trashcan scene.
It was a very hard scene to direct because it’s something that happened to me. Because I haven’t gone to therapy, this is sort of therapeutic for me, it’s healing for me to work through my art. Yes, he puts on his mother’s high heels, the son does, and he walks down the stairs, and the father puts him in the trashcan.
Apparently though, it wasn’t initially his idea to include the scene in the show. That came from series co-creator Danny Strong. Per The Los Angeles Times:
Strong, an avowed hip-hop fan, conceived of the show while driving in Los Angeles (he’s from Southern California but now lives in New York). He immediately called Daniels, with whom he had collaborated on “Butler” and who is avowedly not a hip-hop fan. (The director had to be told who Timbaland was when the artist was brought on to oversee music for the show.)
Several days later, Strong and Daniels were hashing out ideas for Empire at Daniels’ apartment, an eclectically decorated space that, among other flourishes, included a hammock lined with an animal print.
“When Lee told the story about how as a child he came in the room in high heels and his dad threw him in a trash can,” Strong said, “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m putting this in the show. I’m just not telling him right now.'”
“I was so uncomfortable,” Daniels said
With all the knowledge of its creation, the scene becomes even more powerful, and according to Howard it drove Daniels to tears while filming. Per Deadline:
In the pilot episode, Lucious, in a politically incorrect way, speaks out against Jamal’s homosexuality. In a heart-wrenching flashback, we see Lucious throwing a six-year old Jamal, dressed in drag, in a garbage pail. The inspiration for the scene, wasn’t melodrama for melodrama’s sake, rather it was an actual episode straight out of Daniels’ life.
“Lee Daniels was that little boy and his father put him in the trash can,” recalled Howard.
“Watching Lee while we were shooting this — at one point, he had to look away because he was in tears, because he was facing it. His mother was also there on the set. It was cathartic for Lee. Lee would not allow me to show any compassion in the scene. He reminded me how much Lucious loved little Jamal, but my need for the boy to be a strong man was greater than my need to show my love to him. That was a difficult scene.”
Added Howard, “I got to tell the story that a lot of men throughout the world are afraid to tell because sometimes we are too P.C.”
Days after the series’ successful debut, the tackling of homosexuality and homophobia in the Black community remains one of the most talked about elements of the show. Judging by the trailer for the rest of the season, it looks to be a central plot for the series. While the show may wallow in absurdity, judging by the backstory here, it’s also rooted in realism, no matter how hard it is to believe.