There’s a moment in Star, the new series from Lee Daniels, when Queen Latifah shows up to Benjamin Bratt’s apartment with a gun in her purse and a wig on her head. It’s the third wig in as many scenes.
There’s her matronly and defiantly cheap church wig, her everyday/around-the-beauty-shop wig and then this—her going-to-threaten-a-man’s-life wig. It’s an asymmetrical number with a shock of white that sent a series of gasps (mine included) through the crowd at a preview of the premiere episode this week.
It’s a great wig—and a great moment, one that the Queen dominates, much like the rest of the episode. That’s not for lack of strong material, it’s just that when Latifah’s on screen, all hail the queen.
When Empire premiered, it quickly set itself apart through its audacious brand of storytelling, infectious music and an epic star turn by Taraji P. Henson. Empire’s ratings increased each week—no mean feat in a world where cable and streaming networks are eating away at network TV’s market share.
The fact that the show didn’t shy away from queer themes or characters also signaled a sea-change in television’s depiction of diversity. Star takes what made Empire a hit and reworks it, slightly, to follow a girl group’s rise to fame.
If there’s one thing America has been sorely lacking as of late it’s a great girl group. (Destiny’s Child left a hole that no Fifth Harmony can fill, sorry.) Sensing this, Daniels stages his latest musical drama around Star Davis (Jude Demoreset), a tough chick from the wrong side of the tracks. Star has tireless musical ambition—hey, it’s right there in her name.
Within the first 15 minutes she’s plunging a knife into Darius McCrary (a.k.a. Family Matters’ Eddie Winslow) to rescue her younger sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady). Together with Instagram bestie Alexandra Crane (Ryan Destiny)—who’s trying to escaping her ivory tower in Manhattan—the ladies drive to Atlanta seeking shelter with Star and Simone’s godmother, Carlotta Brown (Latifah).
Lenny Kravitz—who, by the way, is 5-goddamn-2 everyone—makes a quick appearance as Alexandra’s rock legend dad, though I’m really looking forward to meeting her mother, played by none other than Daniels fave Naomi Campbell.
Talk about genetics: Young Alex Crane is snatching for the gods.
Benjamin Bratt, also 52 and aging like a fine wine, plays washed-up manager Jahil Rivera. He’s something of a surrogate for Daniels himself, who sees Jahil as a vehicle “to really tell my struggle, my bout with drugs, how ultimately I became the artist I am, because there wasn’t anyone there to teach me.”
Amiyah Scott rounds out the cast as Carlotta’s transgender daughter, Cotton, who much like Empire’s Jamal Lyon, affords Daniels the opportunity to reflect the lives of queer people of color. One scene in particular involves Cotton being the victim of assault, as a record number of trans women have been this year.
“That scene hit home for me. It was tough, to say the least. But we got through it,” Scott told Jet Magazine recently. “What Lee is doing with my character, in particular, is shining a light on something that hasn’t been seen before. But it’s something that’s very prevalent in this day and age. Hopefully, it opens up a lot of people’s eyes.”
Social commentary also fueled Empire but Daniels felt he had to say more something with Star, particularly with the results of the 2016 election still fresh in our consciousness.
“For me, this was about race and race relations and healing, and I wanted to do it through music,” he said at a preview event in L.A.. After the election, “shit got real,” he explained, and that work was “the only thing that saved me.”
“We need to escape. Right now, we need to heal.”
Star, then, may act as a welcome reprieve from the real world, while still incorporating some real-world issues, albeit wrapped in the same over-the-top packaging that made Empire such a hit.
Part of that packaging is glossy musical numbers, but where Empire’s numbers are usually grounded in reality—a concert, a music video, a suspiciously well-rehearsed impromptu performance—Star’s best melodic moment came courtesy of a dream sequence, à la Rob Marshall’s Chicago.
In the scene, Star accompanies Cotton to the local strip club where she occasionally shakes it, and where Jahil frequently visits. Star corners the manager, preparing to give him a private lap dance, when the screen tears away, revealing a “Cell Block Tango”-esque number with strippers clad in gold lamé.
In other words, it’s amazing. (Imagine if En Vogue got into a gang fight with the Pussycat Dolls.)
Honestly, there’s so much hair-flipping I’m surprised Fox wasn’t sued for whiplash.
Star, Simone and Alexandra will no doubt find the success they so desperately crave, and with it, their performances will no longer remain in their dreams. Meanwhile, the Empire crossover possibilities are endless. Lee Daniels and Co. have another addictive, overly dramatic, socially provocative hit on their hands.
But what matters most, clearly, is how Queen Latifah’s wig game will evolve as the girls, and the show, take off. What kind of hairpiece works both in church and with a purse-gun?
Star premires December 14 at 9/8c on Fox.