Is Jamal From 'Empire' Based On A Real Person? Many Of His Experiences Stem From The Series' Creator
It's been a quite a year for Jussie Smollett. The actor/singer has been playing the breakout role of Jamal Lyon on Fox's Empire and the character recently — and very publicly — came out as gay. A few weeks later, Smollett himself did the same thing on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show by saying, "There’s never been a closet. That I’ve been in." Fiction and real life seem to be following a parallel course, and most of Jamal's on-screen experiences are based on real life — including the infamous garbage can scene from the pilot. However, they do not come from Smollett's life, but that of Empire co-creator and executive producer Lee Daniels.
The Oscar-nominated director has said he wants to use Empire to "blow the lid off homophobia" in the African-American community. Daniels himself had a difficult relationship with his father while growing up because of his sexuality. "It's different because it's my life experience and I don't think we've seen it from that perspective before," Daniels told E! "I think that one of the issues is homophobia in America, particularly in the African American community and the hip-hop community."
Those experiences have helped fuel the character of Jamal in the smash hit series. Jamal and Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) have a very rocky dynamic that mostly involves Lucious trying to stifle Jamal's voice and Jamal, in turn, seeking independence.
Here are some of Daniels' real-life experiences that have been incorporated into Jamal's stories.
Relationship With His Father
Much like Lucious, Daniels' father tried to surpress who his son really was. "We also sort of feel what Lucious is going for," Daniels told E! "Look, I'm openly gay and I remember my dad was like, ‘You're an African-American man, that's hard enough. You're going to throw gay on top of it? What are you doing? You have a choice. Do you really want to go through like this?' And that still weighs on me."
The Garbage Can Scene
In the pilot episode, there's a flashback where Lucious catches sight of a young Jamal playing in Cookie's high heels and Lucious literally throws Jamal into the garbage. It was one of the most shocking Empire moments — and it really happened to Daniels. "My dad was playing cards one Sunday with his cop friends and I put on my mother’s red pumps and walked down the stairs," he said. "He beat me really bad, but that didn’t stop me because the following Sunday I put on her blue high heel shoes and walked down the stairs. This time with her purse."
But it was actually co-creator Danny Strong's decision to incorporate the scene into the pilot and Jamal's backstory. "It becomes this ongoing visual theme through the course of the season," he said. "It’s just sort of become symbolic for homophobia, that sequence and how brutal it can be and how ingrained and passionate feelings can be, particularly a father to a son."
Daniels' Reaction To The Scene
On set, filming the scene was difficult, yet cathartic for Daniels. "It was a very hard scene to direct because it’s something that happened to me," he told KPCC. "Because I haven’t gone to therapy, this is sort of therapeutic for me, it’s healing for me to work through my art."
Howard could see how affected by the scene Daniels became, especially since his mother was on the set watching. "Watching Lee while we were shooting this — at one point, he had to look away because he was in tears, because he was facing it," Howard told Deadline. "Lee would not allow me to show any compassion in the scene. He reminded me how much Lucious loved little Jamal, but my need for the boy to be a strong man was greater than my need to show my love to him. That was a difficult scene.”
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