It was around two on a Chicago morning when “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was attacked near his apartment by two masked men.
Since then, a month’s worth of unexpected twists have baffled fans and the public alike, and have turned the case into an online debate between public figures on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Response to the “Attack”
You might recognize Smollett from the popular TV show “Empire,” which is currently in its fifth season. Smollett charmed audiences in his breakout role as Jamal Lyon, a promising singer and one of the three sons of Cookie and Lucious Lyon, former drug-dealer-turned-CEO of Empire Entertainment. The show follows the Lyons’ ongoing turmoil amid interludes of catchy hip-hop music and scenes of explosive family secrets. Like his character, Smollett is black and openly gay, two factors that would be front and center in the “hate crime” against the actor.
When Smollett reported the Jan. 29 attack to Chicago police, he told officers that the two men yelled “racial and homophobic slurs” at him and doused him in an “unknown chemical substance” before placing a noose around his neck. In a second interview, he claimed the attackers shouted, “This is MAGA country.”
News of the hate crime quickly spread to every TV talk show and social media platform. Online posts showed viewers’ outrage at a crime obviously motivated by bigotry and racism, with various political figures in vocal support of Smollett. Democrats such as Sen. Kamala Harris labeled the attack “a modern day lynching” in one tweet, Rep. Maxine Waters claimed that Trump was dividing the country and even former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted that such hate crimes “must never be tolerated in this country.”
If you’re tuned-in to U.S. culture, it’s plain to see why the Smollett case generated so much vitriol against the two attackers. It seems every week consists of more interactions fraught with homophobia or racism that mirror all too well the highly publicized attack. Stories of homophobic acts and racially charged police brutality have sadly long lost their shock value, but Smollett’s case would soon turn an unbelievable 360 degrees.
A Twist in the Case
A few days after the attack, Smollett released a statement thanking everyone for their support and love, before discussing the ongoing police investigation in the midst of growing skepticism.
“I am working with authorities and have been 100 percent factual and consistent on every level,” Smollett said. “Despite my frustrations and deep concern with certain inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been spread, I still believe that justice will be served.”
The lingering doubts would magnify, however, when, on Feb. 15, Chicago police apprehended two persons of interest who were recorded on surveillance video. They were released without charge, and the case turned: The two men involved in the incident alleged that Smollett had orchestrated the attack himself.
It turns out that the two men, Nigerian brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, knew Smollett before the incident, as both brothers had played extras in “Empire.” They told police that Smollett had offered to pay them in exchange for helping him stage a hate crime.
They told CBS Chicago, “We are not racist. We are not homophobic and we are not anti-Trump. We were born and raised in Chicago and are American citizens.”
Smollett unsurprisingly denied the accusations, but the mounting evidence against him is pretty convincing and points to a more intricate story. Phone records collected by police reveal that Smollett spoke on the phone to the brothers before and after the staged attack.
Smollett texted Ola, “Might need your help on the low. You around to talk face to face?”
Dissatisfaction at his $65,000-an-episode salary from “Empire” turned out to be the true reason for Smollett’s scheme. A week prior to the attack at the “Empire” studio, Smollett reported receiving a threatening and homophobic correspondence filled with cut-up letters that spelled “MAGA.”
Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson stated that the actor had written the letter himself to gain publicity. Smollett then turned to staging an attack when the threatening document didn’t receive the exposure he desired.
Afterward, the political aura surrounding the case was peppered with bombshells, this time as Republican figures stole the mic from Democrats. Donald Trump Jr. posted his own Oscar “hoax” category, composed of nominees Nathan Phillips, Christine Ford and Smollett. Conservative political commentator Sean Hannity told viewers that the media would twist any news story if it furthered “the narrative that Donald Trump is evil.” President Trump himself criticized Smollett on his favorite social media outlet, Twitter:
“@JussieSmollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
Politicians Being Politicians
If there’s a major takeaway from the Smollett case, it’s that politicians will use any story to attack their opponents and propel their political agenda. The impulsive nature of politicians swooping in to Smollett’s defense became embarrassingly obvious when many of them retracted their original statements, including Sen. Harris.
“Like most of you, I’ve seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I’m sad, frustrated, and disappointed,” Harris posted on her Twitter account. “When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward.”
It’s not surprising that politicians would mold an alleged hate crime to match their political views, but it’s more apparent in the Smollett case because they got ahead of themselves and — most importantly — the story. Republican politicians later mocking Smollett, and Democrats that supported him, only distracted readers from a news story that has yet to reach a definite conclusion.
Over the course of a single month, the controversy has inflicted massive damage onto Smollett’s reputation and career as an actor. The producers of “Empire” cut Smollett’s character, Jamal, from the last few episodes of the fifth season after the actor was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and filing a false police report. He has since been released after paying 10 percent of his $100,000 bond.
Smollett may or may not be guilty of planning an attack in the desperate hope of increasing his salary on “Empire,” but if he is indeed behind everything, then the story ultimately comes down to an actor taking advantage of the volatile state of racism and homophobia in America. If nothing else, the Smollett case might give politicians second thoughts the next time they tweet their opinions.