The many ironies of the Jussie Smollett situation (and there are many)

(December 13, 2021).  By now, anyone who pays attention to pop culture news—and that’s essentially what this is—is aware of last week’s guilty verdict against former Empire actor Jussie Smollett for five of the six charges levied against him by the city of Chicago after he concocted a hate crime against himself on a cold dark night in the Windy City nearly three years ago. 

In January 2019, the then-36-year-old actor, who is Black and openly gay, allegedly staged a homophobic and racist attack against himself while on a late-night Subway sandwich run.  He hired a companion (Abel Osundairo) and the companion’s brother (Ola) to physically assault him, pour bleach on him and wrap a noose around his neck, all while shouting racist and homophobic slurs at the actor.

Jussie Smollett (left) and brothers Abel and Ola Osundairo

The apparent motive…for the staging of the attack, that is?  Smollett wanted attention.  Reportedly, he wanted the producers of his show to take earlier alleged anti-gay threats against him more seriously.  Earlier speculation even went as far as to suggest the actor, who played the middle son of characters Lucious (Terrance Howard) and Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) on Empire, wanted leverage in negotiating a new salary—a salary that, also reportedly, had risen from $25K to $500K per episode during the show’s six-season run.

The fact that Smollett’s plan not only didn’t work but backfired against him—he was fired from Empire in Season 5 just weeks after it was initially suspected that his attack was a hoax—is just one of many ironies associated with this story.

Actually, another aspect—Smollett’s celebrity status—factors heavily into the first of these ironies, because had he not been a well-known TV star to begin with, the city of Chicago, sadly, might not have devoted as much attention and resources to investigating his “attack,” a fund expenditure that likely led to the city’s outrage and fervent prosecution of Smollett once it was suspected that he planned the hoax.  You or I might have gotten away with it simply because the attack might not have been so aggressively prosecuted in the first place.  

But back to Empire, it’s interesting (and, again, ironic) that Smollett would have gone through such lengths to map out this “attack” to get leverage on the show given its ratings at the time.  They were tanking.

The writing was already on the wall in 2019 that Empire’s viewership was a fraction of what it had been during its peak in 2015. Tired, unimaginative and repetitively themed story lines over its five-plus seasons had already doomed it.  Not even its music, which was still pretty good—including Smollett’s—could restore the show to its début season glory.  That year saw its first-season soundtrack top the Billboard 200 album chart.  After Season 2, none of its soundtrack albums even made the top 30.  It had to be pretty clear to everyone involved (and those of us who weren’t) that Empire’s days were already numbered.  

It’s that fact that points to one of the greatest ironies of all this.  Smollett’s character—openly gay middle son Jamal Lyon—had been the show’s most complex and its most interesting (at least of the three children), making his firing the most compelling aspect of this story.  That the show’s producers were willing to take such a drastic step on a show that itself was on life support suggested that even some of his most ardent early supporters—namely the folks in charge at Empire—didn’t believe his story.  Still, the show’s producers did not kill off his character, likely hoping for a possible return by the actor after all of his legal issues were resolved (assuming they would be before the show’s inevitable end) or at least keeping fan curiosity about a possible return high enough to spark ratings.  Empire survived one more season after Smollett’s firing.

In the nearly three years since the hoax-attack story first dominated headlines, we’ve had much bigger issues to deal with: real racial injustice, increasingly divisive politics, growing economic disparity, and a deadly pandemic, just to name a few.

The Smollett story appropriately took a backseat after his initial arraignment.  It wasn’t until this year’s jury trial that it was resurrected, with virtually every national news outlet giving it more than reasonable coverage as the trial unfolded.

Still, one news channel—namely ultraconservative Fox News—doesn’t believe that liberal leaning news media, particularly MSNBC and CNN, have given the story enough coverage.  Fox News has gone as far as to suggest that prime time CNN anchor Don Lemon was somehow complicit in tipping off Smollett to the growing disbelief of the actor’s initial version of the attack story and that Lemon should’ve mentioned his text messages to Smollett, which were revealed in testimony, on his news show (Lemon was actually very vocal on his show in 2019 about his disappointment with Smollett after news of the hoax broke, and Lemon wasn’t alone in his early skepticism about the story, well before charges were filed against Smollett).

Fox News, however, is treating last week’s conviction like A-level news, keeping the story in numerous of its headlines, all with the same theme: liberal media was duped by a fake, hate-crime story and Fox is here to remind you of the egregiousness of it all—not just Smollett’s crime but the fact that overzealous libs jumped all over the alleged attack in 2019.  

There is an even greater irony to all of this.  Let’s face it: the only reason Fox News gets to gloat at all about not taking Smollett’s earlier bate is that, well, hate crimes against openly gay, Black men isn’t really their thing, is it?  That Fox was reticent to express sympathy and anger for what was largely believed to be a hate crime—at least within the first few days of it being reported—speaks more to their character than that of other news media. The fact that they “got this one right” certainly doesn’t erase the years of alternative reality and fear-mongering conspiracy narratives they’ve crafted before and since.

To hear Fox News tell it, Smollett’s crime and the liberal media’s (and politicians’) three-year-old reaction to it are more important and egregious today than even the far worse insurrection and attack on the U.S. Capitol that took place earlier this year.  Only the recent burning of the Fox News Christmas tree by a homeless man—and the alleged attack on Christianity it represents (according to Fox News, of course)—rivals it in significance, based on the outlet’s obsessive coverage of both.

Jussie Smollett

But perhaps the biggest irony to all of this is that, in a twisted sense, if getting attention was the goal, Smollett’s plan kinda worked (thanks even to Fox News).  I mean, how many of you can name the actors who played his two brothers on Empire?  Aside from Henson and Howard, Smollett may be the show’s only actor whose name can be recalled without having to Google it.  And his post-Empire career will likely not be any worse off than those other actors aside from Henson (and maybe Howard who has yet to emerge since the show’s cancellation).

The bottom line: Smollett, who likely will not do jail time when sentencing takes place some time in 2022, has been relevant far longer than even the show that catapulted him to fame seven years earlier.  And if, as his lawyers have promised, there is an appeal to last week’s verdict, you can expect that relevancy—dubious as it may be—to last a couple more years.

DJRob

DJRob (2021)

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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