'Empire's' Jussie Smollett Tells Us Why TV Is The Place To Find Diversity, Not Movies

Can the Oscars learn from 'Empire's' success?

There’s a reason Lee Daniels saved “Empire” for the small screen.

Originally conceived by co-creator Danny Strong as a feature film -- think “King Lear” meets “The Godfather” -- “Empire” tells the story of hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon, whose grim ALS diagnosis leaves his three sons and his outspoken ex-con ex-wife, Cookie, vying for his music empire. So why did the Oscar-nominated director, fresh off his Oscar campaign for “The Butler,” forgo the big screen for TV? “It was time to get into another medium,” he told The Wrap.


Jamal and Cookie on '

Daniels isn’t the first film fixture to transition to television in recent years. Viola Davis took a chance in starring in Shonda Rhimes’ latest stylish soap “How To Get Away With Murder.” Not even a season later and Davis has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as leading lady Annalise Keating. At the time she said, “I don’t see anyone on TV like me in a role like this.” More impressively, the first episode of ABC’s “HTGAWM” was seen by an estimated 14 million viewers, and Daniels’ “Empire” had the highest debut for Fox in three years with nearly 10 million.

While this is great news for diversity on television, film is struggling to keep up. Thursday’s Oscar nominations were dominated by white performers, sparking a #OscarsSoWhite campaign on Twitter.

The lack of diversity represented in the Academy’s nominees for the 2015 Oscars is sadly juxtaposed in a week when “Empire” gained viewers in its second week -- after an already impressive premiere -- and the Golden Globes celebrated female talent and culturally progressive television.

“TV is a more diverse space right now because TV is driven by the people,” “Empire” star Jussie Smollett (Jamal) told MTV News over the phone. “When a television show like ‘Scandal’ becomes the biggest show in recent history, suddenly advertisers and networks want to jump on that. And what it’s showing is that people want to see diversity. They want to see people who look like them on television, and they also want to see people who don’t look like them on television. But in film, everything is still driven by individuals — and those individuals can make or break your movie.”


David Oyelowo Ava DuVernay

“That’s not to say black films don’t make any money because black folks do very well at the box office. Taraji’s [P. Henson] movie with Idris Elba — that she produced along with Idris — featured a black leading lady and a black leading man, both producing that film, and that was a number one film. It’s not like black folks are putting stuff out that is falling on deaf ears. People are listening. It’s just the people in charge of the nominations aren’t listening.”

Of course diverse films are being made. “Selma” earned a Best Picture nomination despite being snubbed in most of the major categories. And “Beyond The Lights,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, was a critical and commercial success at the box office.

“What message does it send to the masses when someone -- or an entire race -- is completely snuffed? And completely ignored for work that was at the top of their game? That’s what we need to be asking,” Smollett said.


Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in '

This isn’t to say TV is the superior medium. Even television has a long way to go, as noted by this December headline from The Wrap: “Viola Davis Takes Over Kerry Washington's Drama Actress Slot.”

“Kerry Washington is probably not stressing over the fact that she did not get a Golden Globe,” said Smollett. “I bet she is doing really fine right now. But it’s about her not getting it and what that represents. It’s the reasons behind why was she not nominated. That’s what we need to be talking about. It’s not about being sad she wasn’t nominated; it’s about asking yourself, ‘Well, why is there only one spot for a black women to be nominated for Best Actress?’”

If that’s the case, we’ll be having this conversation again when Emmy nominations are announced this summer -- when Davis, Washington, and Henson will all be on the shortlist of Best Actress nominees. And the world will be watching.

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