‘Empire’ returns next month but not everyone will be watching

In Sunday's column, we talked about the critical need to somehow change the narrative around African-American men from drug-dealing criminals to hardworking family men who want the same things other men want.

The prevailing negative stereotypes were blamed on the media and the entertainment industry who care more about ratings than reality.

That reasoning has a kind of deja vu quality. The argument used to be that the people who called the shots were white executives who were obsessed more with ratings and box office numbers than reality.

That’s hardly the case anymore, especially on television.

From Tyler Perry's "The Haves and the Have Nots," to "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder," "Empire" and the long list of "reality" TV shows, there are plenty of stereotypical characters to go around. Some would argue that having African-American writers and directors hasn't made any difference.

Say what you will about Bill Cosby, but his 1980s hit series, “The Cosby Show,” and its spinoff, “A Different World,” at least showed African-Americans in a positive light.

Many in the black community will tell you this is a difficult issue. They don’t want to be seen as unsupportive of the few who are making it in Hollywood and on prime-time television. After all, the argument goes, it’s just entertainment.

If only it were that simple. If only this were as difficult as they make it out to be. Is getting paid more important than creating characters that offer a more balanced view of African-American life, providing black children images worth emulating?

The question is particularly apt given African-Americans’ growing concern about race relations and highly publicized police shootings of unarmed black men.

Trabian Shorters, founder and CEO of BMe Community, a nonprofit that supports black men working to better their communities, is among those who blame the media and entertainment industry for negative portrayals of blacks, particularly black men.

“When black males are portrayed everywhere we look in a negative light, our brains — no matter our race or sex — are prone and primed to believe that this portrayal is correct, even the norm,” Shorters says. “In fact, it’s not. Not by a long shot.”

Dorothy McGuire of Lithonia agrees. She has taken some flak for it but refuses to watch the aforementioned current shows.

“My family and friends think I have sold out or have lost my mind,” she said.

But the Lithonia grandmother has thought long and hard about this. Like so many others, she’s just sick and tired of television shows that depict African-American men and women in a negative light.

“These shows in my mind perpetuate the stereotypes that white America have about black people,” McGuire said. “They remind me of the old black exploitation movies of the ’70s.”

Monique Patrick, 49, of Kennesaw disagrees. She can barely wait for the return of “Empire” and “Scandal.”

Although “The Haves and the Have Nots” is her least favorite, Patrick, a chief financial officer for a nonprofit, has been watching the dramas since their beginning.

She sees the lineup of African-American shows as a plus.

“Ten years ago, we would not have seen these kinds of shows on prime-time television,” she said. “I think it’s a positive for our race.”

It's true that Kerry Washington's character owns her own company on "Scandal," and Viola Davis plays a high-powered defense attorney and law professor on "How to Get Away With Murder." Their characters, however, have questionable moral values.

“They sleep with married men and cheat on their husbands at the drop of a hat,” McGuire said. “‘Empire’s’ Taraji P. Henson’s character is a loud-mouth ex-con who exposes her butt in a board meeting.”

And while the male lead in “Empire” is an entrepreneur, the seed money for the businesses is from illegal sources.

The argument that this is just television is hard to swallow.

Although African-Americans have made considerable strides since the 1960s to become law-abiding CEOs, CFOs and COOs of major companies, the opposite is being shown on television. And reality television — "Married to Medicine" and "Braxton Family Values," for instance — is not something to be proud of.

Not even Patrick will vouch for them.

“Those shows are not a good portrayal of women of any color,” she said.

McGuire is the daughter of a retired educator and a carpenter. She’s been happily married for 34 years to Al McGuire, a retired bank executive. They taught their three children to love God, to respect themselves and others.

But with few exceptions, she hasn’t seen anything on television or in the movies that even comes close to that kind of black family.

“It’s a scandal that the powers that be have figured out how to get away with murder and built an empire while calling us the N-word under the guise of giving us our own shows during prime-time television,” she said.

“Empire” returns next month, but Dorothy McGuire won’t be watching it.

What about you? Is it just entertainment or has TV gone too far?

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