When news stories first reported that Jussie Smollett, one of the stars of the popular show Empire, had been victim of a hate crime on an early morning in snowy Chicago, I felt really bad for him. According to Smollett, two men had attacked him, calling him racial slurs and homophobic slurs. They tied a noose around his neck and poured bleach on his body.
Smollett’s friends, politicians, high profile celebrities, and others across the US condemned the attack as despicable and sent their well-wishes as well as a wish for swift justice for his attackers. Smollett conducted interviews and spoke out, relating his experience and telling the world that he fought back. Chicago police requested the actor’s phone records (something that I, at first, thought was unnecessary because, after all, Smollett was the victim, right? Why did they need his phone records?) and they began their investigation of the incident.
As time went on, however, Smollett’s narrative began to unravel. The two men who attacked him- people who shouted at him about being in “MAGA country“ were said to be two Nigerian brothers who worked as extras on the set of Empire. Moreover, the brothers, who had forged a friendship with Smollett, reported that they had received money from him to carry out the attack. ($3,500 with $500 to be added after the attack.) It turns out the brothers had bought rope at a local hardware store as well as two red hats. They had even done a practice run on the attack, they’d said.
Now, some of the people who immediately spoke out in support of Smollett are quietly backing out of the discussion. News outlets are reporting that the actor may have staged his own attack in order to prevent being written off Empire. A grand jury is currently being assembled to investigate Smollett’s claims and if his case turns out to be a hoax, he could face up to three years of imprisonment. Smollett, for his part, has vehemently denied the idea that he manufactured the attack but has hired a defense attorney.
Time will tell if the Smollett attack was real or something the actor planned in order to generate more attention for his personal brand. If this was all a hoax, though, Smollett has not only embarrassed himself but has caused his supporters embarrassment as well. And being both Black and gay (two groups of people who have been, and continue to be, marginalized and harmed by oppressive policies) he should have known better than to make up stories that could cause real victims to be ignored or their stories to be discounted. Think about the history of hate crimes in this country- how people have been dragged from the back of trucks and killed for being black, how people have been beaten to death for being gay or transgendered. What kind of person would make up a hate crime?
Someone once said that it’s dangerous to chase fame, and if the allegations are true and Smollett did engineer this for his own star power, then he has chosen a dark road. In a time of societal chaos and political corruption, none of this is cute and none of this is funny. Well, some of the memes that have come out are funny but...you know what I mean.