The creator of Fox's prime-time soap "Empire" said he wants to "blow the lid off homophobia" in the African-American community with a depiction of the show's lead character's hostile relationship with his gay son.
Lee Daniels, who was also behind the movies "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Precious," said that his own father's hostility toward gays frightened him and he knows the same attitudes are being passed on from one generation to another in households around the world.
"What we're trying to do is to give people the opportunity to see that what they're doing is painful," Daniels said at a television conference on Saturday.
"Empire," the story of a strong-willed music family whose patriarch, Lucious Lyon, is portrayed by actor Terrence Howard, has gotten off to a strong start this month at the ratings-challenged Fox network. The series had the unusual feat of growing in viewership from its premiere week to its second, compelling Fox to quickly give the go-ahead to a second season.
During the show's first episode, Lyon learns he has a fatal disease and is battling with his just-released-from-jail wife over which of their three sons will take over their music empire. Lyon is openly hostile to his gay son Jamal. During a flashback, Lyon is shown stuffing Jamal into a garbage can when he sees the boy trying on his mother's high heels.
"I'm glad that I can show the African-American community that this is what you're doing to your son, this is what you're doing to your nephew, this is what you're doing to the kid down the street," Howard said.
Daniels said that he believes if his father were alive today, he would have evolved in his thinking.
Jussie Smollett, the actor who portrays Jamal, said he's been overwhelmed by the response to the story line that he has seen in social media.
If there are viewers who can see themselves in Jamal, "that's incredibly dope and I embrace that," Smollett said.
At a time the movie industry is under fire for its commitment to diversity — only white actors received nominations when last week's Oscar contenders were announced — "Empire" is seen as making strides in that area.
Taraji P. Henson, the actress who plays Lucious' wife Cookie, said entertainment executives take notice when shows dominated by minority cast members make money.
Viewers want to see people who look like them on television, Smollett said. They're also interested in people that don't look like them, he said.
"Right now we're seeing people enjoy the culture of America, the culture of the world," Daniels said. "We're showing real life now."