It's no surprise that mental illness is a topic that is not discussed nearly enough in most non-white communities. As a black person who suffers from anxiety and knows others who have a mental disorder, however, I’ve witnessed firsthand the ways in which we generally treat one of our own having one. It’s true that we all know someone—whether it be a brother, sister, best friend, or parent—who is plagued with a mental illness, but I find that the issue is oftentimes swept under the rug. By refusing to educate ourselves and talk about it in a public forum, we inevitably set our community up for failure.
How is one supposed to seek help without the fear of being judged if the issue is rarely talked about in the first place? How does one find solace in knowing that they’re not alone in this kind of suffering if others who have a mental disorder are silenced?
This is why when the TV show Empire unveiled one of its pivotal characters, Andre Lyon, as having bipolar disorder, I was thankful to creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong for bringing to light a reality that many black individuals face. I cannot remember the last time I saw a black person on TV or in a movie—a dramatization or not—who struggled with a mental disorder. Usually, it’s a white woman à la Toni Collette in United States of Tara, or a severely troubled white teen like Jake Gyllenhaal in the dark-drama film Donnie Darko.
Yes, these stories are real for many individuals regardless of race, but the mere fact that black people are often left out of the narrative makes it seem as if it’s not real for us.
While the show’s portrayal of bipolar disorder has been criticized by many for its inaccuracy and disregard for depicting the nuances of the illness, I believe that there exists someone who battles with it in the same manner that Andre does. That is not to say that his experience is representative of bipolar disorder as a whole, but that it is relatable in one way or another.
Andre’s illness has worsened as of late, mainly due to the fact that he made the irrational decision to stop taking his meds. This choice resulted in his having extreme emotional highs and lows all within the span of a single day, a turning point of the series that criticizers perceive as unrealistic. As someone who doesn’t have bipolar disorder and has never suffered from a mental illness, I cannot deem Andre’s drastic and quick change in moods unreal. It would be unfair of me to draw such a conclusion.
What some criticizers don’t take into account, though, is that Andre’s disorder is unfolding on a half-season TV show, which means that there is an obligation, to a certain extent, to accelerate and exaggerate the progression of his disorder. Empire is a show that is inherently melodramatic, so it’s only natural that some of its characters are hyperbolized. Also, the show only has so much time allotted to engage viewers, so it makes sense that Andre’s character has developed so quickly.
Andre Lyon is not the quintessential depiction of someone who has bipolar disorder; no one who has it is. But he represents some of those financially successful, young black men who, despite the many 0s in their bank account and the obstacles they've overcome in America, also have to deal with a mental disorder. And, quite frankly, I think it’s about damn time that we start a discourse on the role that mental health plays in many black persons' lives.
Instead of picking apart Empire for all the ways in which it fails to convey a more “real” example of bipolar disorder, let’s appreciate it for, at the very least, encouraging our society to examine such a highly ignored and misunderstood issue in the black community.