On January 29, Jussie Smollett, an openly gay, black actor on television show Empire, reported that he was attacked by two white men.
The actor told the police that these men made anti-gay and racist comments and threw a noose around his neck. “This is MAGA country”, the attackers allegedly said while also pouring chemicals over Smollett and punching his face.
MAGA is an acronym made popular by Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan that critics say is reflective of bigotry and hate. Moreover, the racist slurs and noose as a weapon pointed to evidence of a hate crime.
Smollett received an outpouring of support from his peers. Actor Viola Davis tweeted, “OMG!! THIS is why the LGBTQ community continue to fight to be seen and PROTECTED against hate! We ALL have to take this racist and homophobic act of violence very personally!”
TV show host Ellen DeGeneres, who struggled with her career when she came out in public, also tweeted, “Four years ago, @JussieSmollett came out on my show. I’m sending him and his family so much love today.”
Other A-listers like Janelle Monae, Steve Harvey, John Legend, and Jada Pinkett Smith all expressed their support on social media.
How the drama unfolded
Police initially said that despite officials reviewing 50 surveillance cameras, no video footage or witnesses of the alleged attack could not be found.
However, in a shocking turn of events, the police charged Smollett with filing a falsified report and orchestrating a fake crime.
According to the police, Smollett allegedly paid two brothers to stage a hate crime against him because he was dissatisfied with his $125,000 per episode salary. One of these men is Smollett’s gym trainer and the other was an extra on Empire.
Police authorities also alleged that Smollett sent himself a racist letter with white powder in the envelope that turned out to be aspirin, reports BBC.
The authorities claim to have evidence of a cheque signed by Smollett that he used to pay off these two men.
Police superintendent Eddie Johnson said that Smollett “took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
According to BBC, Johnson also called the entire incident a “hoax” and demanded that Smollett apologise to the city of Chicago.
On Thursday, the Chicago Police placed Smollett under arrest. Judge John Fitzgerald ordered Smollett to pay a $10,000 bond for a $100,000 bail and surrender his passport.
Although Smollett’s legal team argued that he was not a flight risk, the Judge ordered him to remain under police supervision.
CNN reports that Smollett’s attorneys said, “Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked. Given these circumstances, we intend to conduct a thorough investigation and to mount an aggressive defense.”
His lawyers also said that Smollett is a man of “impeccable character” who has been “betrayed” by a system that “wants to skip due process”.
US President Donald Trump addressed the controversy in a tweet saying, “.@Jussie Smollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA”.
Washington Post journalist Glenn Kessler implied that Trump’s comment on Jussie was racially motivated.
Kessler tweeted, “It will be interesting to see how many presidential tweets @JussieSmollett merits versus the U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-identified white national arrested with a cache of weapons and ammunition stockpiled to target politicians and journalists in a terror attack.”
Kessler is referring to Christopher Paul Hasson who was arrested after police found weapons in his Maryland residence.
CNN says that when rumours of the fabrication began floating around, Empire’s producers publicly defended him saying he was a core member of the team and the rumours were “patently ridiculous”.
However, this evening, Hollywood Reporter said that Smollett has been removed from the last two episodes of Empire.
The show’s producers, singing a tune much different than their last one, said in a statement, “The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us… While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out. We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of Jamal from the final two episodes of the season.”
Although Smollett apologised to his cast and crew, he insisted that he is innocent.
Potential repercussions for minorities
Some people believe that the Smollett case is being given undue attention and should be treated as any other piece of entertainment news or Hollywood gossip.
Regardless, Smollett’s case can potentially have a strong negative impact on minority communities.
People who have experienced hate crimes, racism, and sexual assault may find it difficult to voice their struggles. The unfolding of Smollett’s case may have scared racial minorities or queer people from reporting discrimination as they may not be taken seriously.
Another perspective to this is that people might also be less likely to believe those who do report discrimination. Smollett might become the “boy who cried wolf” of the 21st century.
A black, gay survivor of assault Jeremy Helligar penned an emotional letter addressing the whole incident. He said that the backlash against survivors of assault in the #MeToo era has already made it difficult for people to publicly report crimes.
“Sadly, some will use this story as evidence that this oppression doesn’t exist—or that it isn’t as bad as we say it is. From now on, every time I think about one of us suffering in silence because we’re too afraid to speak up, I’ll be thinking about you, too”, Helligar said.
A columnist for the New York Times, Charles M. Blow, tweeted a similar thought. He said, “Black people, PLEASE don’t fall for this racist tripe that one black person’s (or ANY minority’s) actions, good or bad, reflect on the whole. It’s racist to its core. It’s rooted in ‘credit to your race’ conditioning. No person must answer for another’s sin. #JussieSmollett”.
While Smollett’s case may not have any direct repercussions on India’s LGBTQ+ community, it does contribute to the atmosphere of disbelief that surrounds such allegations of assault and discrimination. American pop culture also has vast, transoceanic influence that filters into narratives on social justice all over the world.
This case is still unfolding and Smollett is yet to stand a fair trial and present his defence. Depending on how the trial unfolds, Smollett could either be cleared of all maliciousness or become the next episode of American Crime Story.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius