The pope and Lucious Lyon: A connection you might not have imagined

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(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON _ It was nearly half past 7 when the traffic opened up, and we saw the sign.

The bass line spilled from the Howard Theatre entrance, and the overheads bathed the excesses of hip-hop in high-wattage light. There was the gold kitted-up car, the velvet ropes, the women in tight dresses and gladiator shoes wrapping around their calves, the player-players in satin suits and walking canes. The party people had gathered to make some noise, take some pics, throw out a few oh-no-he-didn’ts as they eagerly awaited the second-season premiere of the smash Fox melodrama “Empire.”

Then, coming down Florida Avenue, as if not to be outdone, there was a sudden flurry: lights flashing, sirens wailing and for the briefest of moments, the robed figure in the black Fiat 500 whisking past, waving blessings to the crowd.

That happened.

The popemobile drove by the “Empire” watch party.

It’s like the uppercase G’s always say: Game recognizes game.

It had to be a sign from above. Pope Francis was in Washington for just two days – the odds were impossible that the devout leader of more than a billion faithful would drive right past the watch party for “Empire,” a soap opera of sin and dysfunctional family that has hooked 17.6 million viewers.

But what did the sign mean?

The pope and “Empire.” Yes, yes, the specifics are different, but if you think about it, there are eerie similarities. First off, the gear for both is designed for maximum effect.

“It’s the stylish ensemblation,” said Dan Pearson, coining a word. The security guard was working the door at the premiere party, and right away, my man saw the connection between the pontiff and Lucious Lyon, patriarch of the show’s hip-hop dynasty.

The pope’s “a clean dude,” said Pearson. “That all-white outfit” is like the one Lucious wears when he wants to keep things crisp and tight. In any empire, your vestments (or your linen slacks) have got to show and prove.

At the watch party, women wore backless tops and posed with cardboard cutouts of Lucious, played with menace and smoothness by Terrence Howard. They screamed when he spoke truth on the jumbo television screen.

Across from Catholic University, the women Francis visited at a convent wore long black habits or white-collared shirts that matched their white headscarves. The Holy Father is ’bout that life, and the nuns prayed as they listened adoringly to everything he had to say.

That’s another similarity: Wherever they go, both Lucious and the pope have sisters checking for them.

Gabrielle Stanton, a property manager from Hanover, Maryland, had just posed on the red carpet in front of the “Empire” logo. Although she’s not Catholic, she says they’d been talking about the pope at her job all day. How his entreaties to love and to stop judging people had made a difference, even to those who didn’t share his faith.

“I think Cookie Lyon [played by Taraji P. Henson] is more like the pope than Lucious,” Stanton said. “It’s Cookie that commands the crowd and loyalty.”

It’s also Cookie who makes us think everybody can dance and wear leopard prints, when really, no.

Gregory Wilson, a chef who formerly worked at B. Smith’s restaurant, had been up early to see the pontiff at Catholic University. He was people-watching near the entrance at the party. “Everybody wants to be down with one empire or the other,” he said. “I had to see the pope, then I had to see the dope, you hear me?”

Standing next to him, his friend Kendrick Lamont, a screenwriter, agreed. “These are the two headliners of the week, most definitely. They both hold the emotional weight” to move people, he said. “If you can’t get inspiration out of today in Washington, D.C., something is wrong with you.”

Like when the pope kissed the babies or the disabled, or took the letter about immigration from the 5-year-old girl standing along the parade route.

And when Lucious told a rival that if he had “war” with his ex, Cookie, then he and the rival were done, then ordered the guy rubbed out. And smiled beatifically.

Different approaches, to be sure. One is a man of God, and the other . . . not so much. But as human beings, nothing speaks to us like being faithful to what we believe in. Like being ride or die for the people we love. Seeing Francis made us feel as if he carried those messages from God.

And if you can do all of that while even making your little Fiat trend, well, then that’s all the better.

“It takes a gangster heart to be able to run an empire,” a show runner said on-screen before the premiere. Isn’t that the gospel truth?

Outside the theater, little felt more gangster than the heaven-sent man shutting down whole swaths of the city to give a wave to the faithful, including all those under the sway of a pounding bass line and the lure of Lucious.

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Keywords: “Empire”, Pope Francis, Lonne O’Neal, Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Washington Post, Washington Post columns, Washington Post columnists

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