Commentary by Ed Power
Actor Jussie Smollett staged a racial attack to up his profile – and thought his fame would allow him to get away with it.
Whoops of encouragement echoed around Hollywood's famous Troubadour venue in February 2019 as actor and rapper Jussie Smollett stood beneath the spotlight and declared he was the "gay Tupac" – a reference to the tragic and iconic '90s rapper Tupac Shakur.
The concert was a triumph for Smollett, who had been advised not to perform as he was still processing the shock of an alleged racist attack several days earlier in Chicago, where he was filming hit series Empire. But perform he did and his reward was the love and support of the 400 or so in attendance.
Those cheers would surely have turned to boos had the audience known the truth about Smollett's "ordeal". Which was that he had staged the incident in order to boost his profile as an actor. And to use the inevitable outpouring of sympathy to strong-arm a pay rise out of the producers of Empire, who were compensating him to the measly tune of $100,000 per episode.
Two years later, Smollett's career lies in ruins after a jury in Chicago concluded he had lied to police when claiming to be the victim of a racially-motivated attack and found the star guilty of "disorderly conduct" over his part in faking the assault. This was merely the latest in a series of humiliations heaped on the actor as his house of cards tumbled down. The ruse was up as early as March 2019 by which time few believed his story and he had already been written out of Empire, a zippy drama about a New York hip-hop dynasty. He has not been seen on screen since.
And so, far from the new Tupac, Smollett (39), is instead another cautionary example of a celebrity pumped full of ego who flew too close to the sun and was burned to a crisp. He was an acting Icarus who had concocted a tall tale which then inevitably came apart at the seams. And yet, cosseted by his wealth and his 4.4 million Instagram followers, he never seemed to stop believing he could defy gravity and spin a lie into the truth.
Smollett had staked his professional future on the fraudulent racial assault, carried out at his behest by two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, to whom he paid $3500 to "rough him up". That was obviously hugely foolhardy; in hindsight it was inevitable the authorities would see through the ruse.
However, it was also morally reprehensible for Smollett to state the attackers had shouted "This is Maga country" – in reference to Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" catch-cry – and that they had slipped a noose around his neck.
The comedian Dave Chappelle picked holes in the story during a 2019 routine about an actor he referred to as "Juicy Smoo-yay": "Black people never feel sorry for the police, but this time we even felt sorry for the police…" Chappelle explained. "He said they put a rope around his neck. Has anyone here ever been to Chicago? All right, so you been there. Now tell me, how much rope do you remember seeing? Like when did you get mugged, 1850? Who's got rope?"
The actor was exploiting justifiable anger among African-American over violence against the black community and the United State's toxic legacy of racism. Eighteen months after his fictitious fracas, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in another Midwest city, Minneapolis, would lead to protests across America and the world. It was a cause that Smollett had done his best to compromise.
"Here's what folks are concerned about – that what he did might undermine future victims, legitimate victims of hate crimes," the actor's former friend, television journalist Don Lemon said on CNN this week (Lemon is accused of tipping off Smollett to the fact the police did not believe him).
In believing he could orchestrate a bogus race crime Smollett appears to have been swept up in a grand delusion. He told police that, while returning home after buying a salad at Subway, he was set up on by two attackers – one a "massive" man in a ski mask. He fought back, he said, suffering blows and a kick to the back. Only after the two fled did he notice the noose around his neck. He'd survived an attempted lynching.
What had really happened, it emerged in court, is that Nigerian-born brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, were hired by the actor to inflict a few perfunctory bruises. Abimbola was an extra on Empire whom Smollett had befriended. The actor said the $3500 cheque written out to Osundairo was for "a meal and workout plan" to help him stay in shape. The jury this week shot down that assertion.
Smollett had initially received an outpouring of support – not least from fellow celebrities. Terence Howard, who plays his father on Empire, for instance, tweeted, "All your lil homies got you … We love the hell outta you". He deceived the world – but especially his (now former) colleagues on Empire.
As is the way with big lies, Smollett's subterfuge had soon metastasised. He claimed the attack was motivated by his criticisms of the Trump administration. And in February 2019 interview with Good Morning America he said that those who didn't believe him "didn't want to see the truth". "It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me much more. A lot more."
The police moved quickly to pick apart his story and, with the case against the actor having finally gone to trial, the jury didn't hesitate in branding him a liar. And so a rising star who had it all – a burgeoning career as a musician, a $100,000 per week gig on one of America's top rated dramas – threw everything away.
It's a reminder celebrity doesn't just rope you off from the rest of the world. In Smollett's case it ushered him into a parallel dimension where lies could be spun into truth and actions did not have consequences. Or so he believed. And then reality came crashing through as his deceptions were held up to the light. And, having once had the world at his feet, all he presides over now is, to paraphrase Johnny Cash and Trent Reznor, an empire of dirt.