‘Empire’ Under Fire: Black Scholar on CNN Calls Show ‘Ghettofied’ ‘Coonery’

“Black actors and actresses are tired of being put in the entertainment ghetto,” Dr. Boyce D. Watkins tells host Don Lemon

Empire interview fox
From left, Taraji P. Henson as Cookie and Terrence Howard as Lucious on "Empire." (Chuck Hodes/FOX)

While viewers were burning up social media about the explosive “Empire” season finale that aired Wednesday night on Fox, a heated debate was happening over on Don Lemon’s “CNN Tonight.”

After showing a clip of the knock-down, drag-out, drink-throwing, weave-pulling catfight between Cookie and Anika, the conversation turned to whether the Fox hip-hop drama negatively portrays African-American culture.

Lemon quoted scholar Boyce D. Watkins, PhD, who was a guest on the show, as having described “Empire” as a “ghettofied hood drama” and “coonery,” before asking him to explain.


“A lot of black actors and actresses are just tired of being put in the ‘entertainment ghetto,’” Watkins told Lemon, adding, “‘The entertainment ghetto’ is basically the place where you have roles that are shows that are specifically designed for black people, where black actors are kind of locked into,” said Watkins, who is known as “The People’s Scholar,” for his commentary on economic empowerment and social justice. He then went on to suggest that Fox would never put such a “dysfunctional” white family on television.

Watkins was part of a panel that included CNN contributor and “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent Nischelle Turner and The Grio entertainment editor Chris Witherspoon. The two journalists, along with host Lemon, all reacted in bewilderment to Watkins’ criticism of Lee Daniels‘ blockbuster drama.

“Did you watch ‘Dallas’? Did you watch ‘Dynasty’? Did you watch ‘Falcon Crest’?” Lemon asked, referring to the hit series which featured dramatic soap opera brawls in the ’80s.

“This is not ‘Dynasty.’ This not ‘Falcon Crest.’ This is ‘I am gonna slap yo bitch ass because I am from the hood,’” Watkins insisted. “It is very different. Remember, if you are black and you want to play roles that involve being a thug, a hoodrat, a gangsta, a killer or a criminal, there are plenty of roles for you in Hollywood. But you can’t compare it say to a show like ‘Black-ish,’ where black people actually get to be human.”

Turner was taken aback by Watkins’ comments and reminded him that the characters on “Empire” are multidimensional just like you would find in a real African-American family. “Yes, you have Lucious, who came from the hood, and Cookie who came from the hood, but they have a son who is Ivy League-educated,” she said.

“They have a son who is gay and who is coming out but he is the most talented one in that family. It is a very diverse family. If you are calling it ‘coonery,’ then you might be calling the Turner family coonery, because I have a lot of these folks in my family,” Turner fired back.

“I think you need to study the history of blaxploitation television,” Watkins responded.

Lemon clearly didn’t agree with Watkins and pointed out that one television show is not going to mirror an entire culture. “It is not ‘The Cosby Show.’ It is not about a doctor. It’s not about a lawyer. Black actors are probably happy to have a job in Hollywood,” he added.

“This show is a cultural phenomenon. It’s bringing people — black, white, Latino — everyone is kind of coming to the TV set for the first time and watching a show.” Witherspoon said. “These characters are rich and deep… it is a big show that is opening doors and I think it’s shedding light on the diversity of black families,” he concluded. Turner and Lemon agreed.