7:00pm PT by Kate Stanhope
'Empire' Writer Discusses Police Brutality Storyline: "This Is Fast Becoming an Everyday Thing"
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Empire, "Sin That Amends."]
For all of it's outrageous fashions, over-the-top deaths and juicy love triangles, Empire ended with a harsh dose of reality Wednesday.
In the second episode of season three, the hip-hop drama tackled police brutality when Andre (Trai Byers) – cleaning out the old apartment he once shared with his late wife Rhonda – was confronted by two police officers who believed he was somehow connected with recent break-ins in his neighborhood. When a cop asked Andre for his I.D., Andre said he left his wallet in the car. He then went to leave in his car when the cops grabbed Andre and threw him down on the pavement. They proceeded to press his face against the ground as they handcuffed him. When Andre started to yell in agony and frustration, one of the two officers pointed a gun in his face as he lay on the ground unable to move.
Empire isn't the first show to tackle the growing issue of police brutality in America, nor is it the first time the hit series has touched on the issue. (The season three premiere featured a song that referenced multiple victims of police brutality like Mike Brown, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.) However, it was still a notable move for the show. And as, the episode's writer Carlito Rodriguez tells The Hollywood Reporter, this is just the beginning of the story.
THR spoke with Rodriguez about the decision to tackle police brutality this season, why the writers chose Andre for the story and what comes next.
Where and how did the idea to tackle the issue of police brutality in this way come from?
We had been talking about doing something like this, along these lines, in season two. Granted, you guys are just seeing the opening of something, but in general, what we would like to explore, what we're going to dive right into is this idea that… although the Lyon family has a lot of money, and with that comes a lot of privilege – we see how they ball out, Hakeem has all the toys in the world, we see them jet-setting around the world – what we're going to see is that because Lucious and Cookie came from nothing to build this multi-million dollar, publicly traded company it is currently, they begin to wonder if their children are a little too sheltered. So this idea that just because you're rich and cultured and manicured and educated doesn't mean that you're not black in the U.S.
What were those early conversations like in the writer's room when you were discussing tackling this issue of police brutality specifically?
As crazy as it sounds, it wasn't like we were trying to be topical on purpose, in terms of what's a hot button thing that we can tap into? That's never the intent. There's too much of a lag anyway. The world moves really fast so even if we thought of something awesome and tried to get in on time, it [comes out] much later. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, this is fast becoming an everyday thing. And some of us in that writer's room, we come from the kind of backgrounds where getting pulled over at gunpoint has become routine. Let me not dance around it. I can speak for myself. I'm not comfortable speaking for anybody else in the room, but I can tell you from my own experience, getting pulled over at gunpoint became routine, it became a regular thing. It wasn't shocking. Whenever I or any of my friends would get pulled over, we would fully expect to get stripped down, thrown against the car, guns in your face, that kind of stuff. And so one day in the room, we were talking about, "Well, these guys are rich? Are they immune to that?" And we talked about how Dr. Henry Louis Gates, a well-respected professor, a thinker and scholar of our time, was in front of his house in a well-to-do neighborhood and got arrested because they thought he was robbing his own house. So again, these are the kinds of conversations we have on a pretty regular basis. Obviously, it's storytelling stuff like, what can we tell with these people to add some conflict to their lives? So with that one, we didn't have to look too far.
What were the conversations with the network like? What hesitations did they have?
I can't speak to them being hesitant, honestly. They've been totally supportive. The mandate around here is: Just keep it Empire. Empire's not The Wire. Empire's never going to be this kind of heady, slow-moving kind of show where we're introspective. Empire lives right in your face. So it was like, "Hey, if we're going to do this, let's make it Empire. Let's be big and bold and in your face."
There have been other scripted shows, like Black-ish and UnREAL, that have taken on the issue of police brutality in different ways. Because of the type of show Empire and knowing all those things that you just pointed out, how do you think Empire's portrayal of this issue will impact the conversation going on now about police brutality?
My hope is that, at the very least, it just offers a perspective. Let's start from the very macro: This show is, as all TV shows are, fantasy, right? It's all fiction, but in my opinion, the best fiction is made up of raw, universal truths so is it a universal truth that people of color get challenged by law enforcement a little more bit more often than none people of color? We're witnessing that everyday. The network and studio have been crazy supportive because they know what we're doing is Empire. We're not trying to be anything other than what we are. So, best way to put it is you guys have just seen episode two, and now we're going to see where that goes from there. Is anybody going to take advantage of that situation? Is it going to change Andre in anyway? Is it a reminder that he needed? Again, these guys are super rich but does that make him immune? They live in a little bit of a bubble and sometimes it's fun to put characters in this fish bowl and then have them realize, "Oh, snap. I live in a fish bowl."
I saw on your IMDB that you worked on a nonfiction piece for BET News about police brutality. So I'm wondering what it was like for you personally to tackle this issue on a scripted, fictional TV series versus what did you then as a journalist?
Yeah, I produced a special for BET. It was called 50 Shots: Official Street Cat Tackles Police Brutality, and it was about when the NYPD killed Sean Bell, a young man who had been leaving his bachelor party with two friends and some undercover police accosted him because they thought they had heard a conversation inside the strip club about one of them having a gun. It turns out they didn't. It turns out these three, essentially, kids – they were in the early 20s – they were just having a good time and the next day he was getting married. Even when I was a journalist, my true passion had always been fiction. Going back to being a little guy watching Hill Street Blues; I was too young to watch but I begged my mom to let me watch it, so these are the kinds of stories that I gravitate to. But at the same time, I have a lot of friends and a few family members that are in law enforcement and it's always good to get both sides of the story. It's always good to get, "Where does this behavior come from? Where does that behavior come from?" One of the things that we explored in that first documentary is what makes this thing systemic? And we started tapping into this idea of unconscious bias.
So now in fiction… again, this isn’t The Wire. If this were The Wire, then we could spend an entire season or a series on this issue and what it does to the lives of people that are affected by it on both sides. When an officer shoots someone and it turns out that it was a mistake or it turns out that it was a lot of unconscious bias at play, I don’t necessarily believe that every single individual who does that goes home and sleeps like a baby. In fact, I seriously doubt it.
Again, we’re Empire. We're going to tell this story in the most Empire way that we can. And ultimately, it's all about these characters. So not it's so much, "Hey, we want to tackle this issue." It's, "Hey, what if one of our characters touches upon this thing here? How is it going to affect his or her life moving forward and the family?"
Was it always going to be Andre at the center of this? What were those discussions like? Why was he the right character for this storyline?
The cool thing about writing for a show like Empire, with a story like this, it could have been any of them. But Cookie's already been through the system. ... Lucious, obviously, has, for the most part, built this empire operating still on the fringes of abiding by the law, so that could have been a way to do it. Hakeem in season one, he peed in the restaurant. So they've all had their brushes [with the law]. Jamal flirted with the dark side of life in season one but he gets shot, so we don't want to just put these dudes through whatever. But when we looked at Andre, after we went through all the permutations, when we looked at Andre, we felt like for the story we want to tell, he's the perfect choice because he did everything "the right way." He stayed buttoned-up. Going back to season one, he had been very dismissive about his father and how he built his empire, and Lucious constantly had to remind him, "You know, you guys are forever judging me and you think that I'm the devil, but we wouldn’t have any of this if I hadn’t done the things that I have done." [Andre] looks down on his mother Cookie. Again, he did everything "the right way": Wharton M.B.A., married the white girl. This is the American dream, this is what we should all aspire to. We just needed to remind him, "Oh, no, bro, you don't get a pass. You're still one of us, homie."
As you said earlier, this is just the beginning of this storyline, so what can you say about what we'll see in the next episode with this? How does this impact Andre going forward?
I think that in life, we can all point to one incident, right? And that's not true, sometimes it's usually a series of incidents that get us to this one place, but we all tend to point to the one thing, the one fork in the road, the one catalyst for change in our lives. We want to see if Andre is gong to consider this a catalyst or if he played by the rules? "No, no, no, everything that I've been through to this point has worked fine for me," but has it, bro? So, we are excited to see viewers' reaction to how Andre reacts to what just happened to him. Again, we felt like Andre was the perfect one through which to tell this story, and so we're having fun with it. We’re having fun with showing… in 20 years, when Andre's forty-something, fifty-something, is he going to look back on this and say, "Remember that one time when the cops did this thing, that was the day that I…" or is he going to say, "When those cops did that to me, it just reinforced my belief that we have to abide," and so on and so forth.
He has also been struggling with the death of his wife, Rhonda, and his grappling with mental illness. How much will those things factor into this storyline?
It's all influencing and impacting his psyche, his state of mind. Again, yeah, a part of it is Andre being challenged on his idea of what being "respectable" will get you. Andre's shield has been that he did things the right way, right? That he "cleaned up the family." But, as we remember, Andre was the 11-year-old who was hiding guns in Legos, and that's one thing that we definitely talked about in that writer's room. You think about Andre as this put-together, buttoned-up Wharton M.B.A. dude, but let's not forget what he's been exposed to. He was hiding guns in Legos because his dad asked him to. We just wanted to strip away his protection. He deems this to be his shield that's going to protect him from everything – "Hey, I did the right thing" – but this dude lost his wife, lost his baby, and he's been doing the right thing so to speak. When he was going up against Lucious in season one, his whole rationale was, "We can't be criminals. I need to be the one running this company because you still do criminal things, and we need to be better than that." But look where he is now.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.