Content to traffic in only the most redundant gangsta clichés, Franc. Reyes’s Empire aggressively courts Latino viewers by playing exactly to the prescribed notion of what movie studios think “urban” audiences really want: more violence, more drugs, more crime. The film owes as much to Boiler Room‘s odious view of capitalistic greed as it does to the rise-and-fall swagger of Goodfellas and Scarface, meaning it’s a copy of a copy of a copy—the notes of genuine personal tenacity that could be found in entertainments as far back as The Public Enemy and Hawks’s Scarface have long been replaced with transparent, cocksure braggadocio. Empire stars John Leguizamo as South Bronx drug lord Victor Rosa who, in a lazy voice-over narration, incessantly yammers on about how making money is the only thing that’s important in life. (In one fanciful scene his face is even juxtaposed with those of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Gates!) But once Victor meets Wall Street power player Jack (Boys Don’t Cry‘s Peter Sarsgaard), the taste of legitimacy is too much for him to resist, forcing him to leave his homies behind for a posh Soho loft and lucrative stock investments.
Reyes, a dance choreographer who was inspired to make a transition to filmmaking after serving as an advisor on Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, is from the very South Bronx neighborhood depicted in the film. Reyes’s construction of xenophobic divisions between NYC neighborhoods is xenophobic at best—indeed, you’d think that only an alien could be so ignorant to what the city is really like. Empire is a film that contentedly suggests that only rich white people inhabit Manhattan while the middle and lower-class minorities are restricted to the boroughs; in one scene a Bronx-born character even laments that when her daughter moves downtown, she’ll never be back to visit again. The temptation to leave the ghetto behind for upscale white neighborhoods is always the ultimate sin for ethnic heroes; those lured into that supposedly foreign world continuously wind up getting betrayed and probably killed. There’s no deviation from this stereotype in Empire. Indeed, Victor’s eventual collapse only encourages a distrust of people who aren’t of his own blood.
It’s depressing to think that a Latino filmmaker would so openly encourage suspicion and unease in his own people. It points to a baffling, almost hypocritical contradiction within many crime movies specifically programmed for minorities. There is a persistent air of celebration regarding the precarious criminal lifestyle—a sense of empowerment and respect through being able to take what you want by whatever means necessary—but it is almost always escorted by a sharp recognition of the price one pays for making such choices. So does Empire, which enthusiastically celebrates selling drugs and killing people in the name of the almighty dollar, deserve to be called a responsible cautionary tale by tempering its excess with scenes of tragedy? In one grotesquely over-calculated moment, an innocent boy is accidentally murdered mere moments after we’re encouraged to applaud a gangster who conducts a bloody shootout without leaving his sofa. That’s not realism; it’s cheap condescension.
Arenas Entertainment is a division of Universal Pictures that, according to Empire‘s press release, “acquires, produces, finances, markets and distributes films tailored to Hispanic audiences worldwide.” So this is the kind of product that is supposed to encourage cultural pride? A movie in which nearly every character has been violently gunned down by movie’s end? A film that exploits and insults not just its own demographic, but anyone who comes into contact with it? Empire is perhaps too clumsy and vulgar a melodrama to be viewed as a calculated piece of racism, but its obtuse unawareness doesn’t excuse it.