While Mip-TV in Cannes this past week turned out to be a very subdued affair, there’s another television event gaining traction up in Paris. Run by cultural org the Forum des Images, the Series Mania festival opens a window for professionals and the public onto current and upcoming comedies and dramas from around the world, giving them the big screen treatment. This weekend, the event kicked off with the world premiere of Fox’s Wayward Pines from Chad Hodge and M Night Shyamalan, the first time the six-year-old festival has scored such a coup. Last night, it gave French fans their first glimpse of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s hip hop hit Empire. After the first two episodes of the soapy drama were screened, Daniels regaled a packed theater with stories of his and Empire‘s journey to television and a peek into the show’s second season, which he said will examine the backstory of breakout character, Cookie Lyon. After about an hour, he surprised the audience by bringing Cookie herself, Taraji P. Henson, up to join him — a moment that was met by thunderous applause, hoots, hollers and a standing ovation.
Local broadcast network M6 has rights to Empire and should find a keen audience when it airs later this year. Empire has been referred to by Daniels as a sort of “Black Dynasty” and France is a country of primetime soap aficonados — the theme song of the original version of Dallas has French lyrics, and everyone knows them by heart.
So, why a soap?, Daniels was asked about his TV debut. “When I played Precious in Harlem with 300 black people, it played as a comedy. And then I played it at Sundance for white people and it played as a piece of art. So for me, I’m always laughing. It goes back to being bullied as a child. I have to find the humor… Yes, I want you to feel what I’m feeling. I’m not trying to make you feel bad, I want you to laugh because we laugh telling the story. We have a fun time telling serious matters. If you cry then there is no hope.”
Henson was careful to note that the series is not too exaggerated. “If we played only over-the-top, we wouldn’t be in Paris right now. No one would identify.” U.S. audiences have clearly identified, giving the Fox drama’s March 18 finale the highest-ratings for a freshman season closer in a decade.
Empire‘s success was a talking point at Mip last week for how it has potentially re-energized broadcast. Part of the decision to make the King Lear-inspired show for a traditional network, Daniels said, was down to reach.
“I wanted my family to see it because a lot of my family — and this is not bullshit, this is the truth — most of my family is in jail, a lot of them have families in jail.” They wouldn’t have been able to see Empire “if it were on a cable network.”
The openly-gay Daniels has drawn on his own experiences for the series, notably in the relationship between mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his son Jamal (Jussie Smollett). “Homophobia is rampant in the hip hop community,” Daniels said, and he wanted to examine that. On a personal level, the series had a positive effect on his relationship with his formerly estranged brother who wrote him an apology letter from prison after seeing Empire. “I knew that he understood homophobia and that is the biggest gift that this show has given to me.”
There are personal resonances for Henson as well. “Look, I am Cookie. The Lyon family, Empire is the American Dream, starting with nothing and making something. I’m the American Dream, we’re the American Dream coming from the hood, coming from nothing and look where we are.”
The series’ success is the moment she’s been waiting for. “I’ve had a lot of false starts. It was like, I’m nominated for an Oscar, is this it? Then I had an Emmy nomination. Then Cookie comes along. You know you made it when you come overseas and people know your name and they’re asking you questions.”
The hit series shines light on an affluent part of the African-American community that hasn’t often been portrayed, Daniels’ interviewer noted. “I’m a rarity,” he answered. “I’m very comfortable going to my aunt’s house on Easter, and you’ve got to dodge bullets coming out of the house, to being on Oprah’s estate. I’m an all-around guy in that I’ve lived it all, but I think there’s so many of us that have money now. Black people have money and yet they want to stereotype us to people that don’t have money — yes we do.”
Asked whether Empire was part of a shift for African-Americans on U.S. television, Daniels drew hearty applause when he proclaimed, “I’m so bored with the color question. I go from one question & answer to the next about black and white and I’m so fucking tired of it. Boring!”
So, what’s on deck for next season? “They (Fox) want to do 22 episodes which I think is a nightmare. And I know you all want to see 22 episodes, but that will kill her,” Daniels said pointing to Henson (she concurred). “It’s a lot of work to make that good stuff. I know it’s going to be more than 12 and it won’t be 22.” The storyline will dig deeper into the backstories of all of the characters, Daniels promised. “I know that we’ll explore the reason why Cookie went to jail,” for example. There will also be exploration of “what’s happening in America today — and the pressure is on!”
Ultimately, Daniels said, “The sky is the limit. We’re here to titillate, to fascinate, to be provocative, to be funny. We’re here to make you feel, we’re here to make you have an orgasm.”