Empire’s most recent episode is a drama-filled hour (Jamal finally came out! Cookie gave a verbal beatdown to Camilla!), but it’s also notable for another reason: It marked the directorial debut of co-creator Danny Strong (The Butler, Game Change). In this exclusive blog post, Strong details why he chose this episode to helm—and what he was calling the show before settling on Empire.
The Lyon’s Roar was actually my first title for the series Empire. As you can see, I’m pretty bad at titles. Fox quickly (and rightly) suggested we change it, and eventually the show became Empire. However, I always liked the sound of that title, and when I started writing episode 108, I realized I had finally found a use for it—because there would be not one, but two Lyons roaring before the episode was over.
Attacking homophobia was always a driving force in the earliest stages of creating the show. In conceiving Empire, I knew there would be a gay son that our hip-hop mogul would be loathe to accept. I had been working with Lee Daniels on the film The Butler, and he had told me numerous stories about his father beating him when he was a kid because he knew Lee was gay, even as a child. I had always been deeply moved by these tragic tales, and they made Lee the first person I thought of to collaborate with on my hip-hop idea. In our very first meeting where I pitched him the project, we immediately discussed making homophobia a central theme.
When it came time for me to write the episode I would direct, I selfishly wanted to make sure it contained the moment when Jamal finally came out. Since it was such a major part of the creation of the show, I wanted to have the honor of delivering this crucial turn to the audience. This would be the moment where the Lyon finally got to roar. And with one Lyon roaring, you best believe another Lyon will soon follow.
Lucious roars back at the end of the episode, when he tells Cookie the family song is dead. Her entire goal in this episode is to bring her family back together by producing a family song—but Lucious’ anger and embarrassment at his son’s declaration of self tragically causes Lucious to dig even deeper into his homophobia.
One of my, Lee Daniels’, and our terrific showrunner Ilene Chaiken’s primary thematic goals is to attempt to show people who feel the way Lucious feels that they are making the same huge mistake that he is making about gay issues. Our hope is that by watching this relationship unfold, they will start to question Lucious’ point of view—and perhaps this will make them question their own point of view on the subject of sexuality. Jamal’s roar hopefully will not only inspire other sons to find their inner Lyon, but will also show other fathers that it’s time to move past the backward homophobia of their parents and grandparents. Instead of hate and bigotry, they will begin to roar with love for their children, who are merely staying true to who they are.
Finally, I had a good use for what was initially such a terrible title.