“The networks underestimate the intelligence of everyone in this room,” the hip-hop drama’s co-creator said bluntly tonight to a downtown LA audience about what America generally gets to watch on TV. Lee Daniels was speaking after a sneak-peek screening in the Ace Theatre of part of the finale of the hit Fox series. Citing the work of Norman Lear as an influence on himself, co-creator Danny Strong and Empire itself, The Butler director added that the show also is a bit of Trojan horse in its own intelligence. “Through humor, we wanted to feel the pain.”

The remarks came as part of a wide-ranging discussion touching on themes of race, empire cast eventsexuality, music and modern America after Part 1 of next week’s two-hour finale was shown to fans at the restored packed theater. At the same time, as he critiqued the networks, Daniels made a distinct point of praising Fox for its strong support of some of the issues and themes Empire has tackled over its initial cycle.

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Cast members Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers, Bryshere Gray, Grace Gealey and Kaitlin Doubleday joined Daniels. Fellow EPs Danny Strong, Brian Grazer, and Ilene Chaiken were in attendance too. Empire wraps up its incredibly successful first season on March 18 with a finale filled with guest stars including Patti LaBelle and Snoop Dogg.