Culture

What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

Actor Jussie Smollett leaves court after charges against him were dropped by state prosecutors in Chicago, Ill. March 26, 2019. (Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters)
His refusal to own up to the hoax has probably maximized the damage to his career.

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going?

Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie Twitter account has ten followers. Smollett’s boss on Empire, showrunner Lee Daniels, now says he is “beyond embarrassed” that he rushed to defend the actor when Smollett first started telling that badly scripted story about his staged attack by a pair of supposed Trump fanatics who at the time seemed to be the only people in America who even knew who he was.

A funny thing happened during Smollett’s victory lap: Chicago reporters obtained communications from police and prosecutors after a judge unsealed the case file. These records included texts Smollett sent that were obtained by police. The picture of Smollett that has emerged is considerably more detailed now: He had himself a rip-roaring good time while he was planning to make himself look like the victim of a nasty assault. He is brazen. He is smug. He is without doubt a liar, and a liar who preys on Americans’ natural sympathy for racial and sexual minorities. In the church of identity politics, what Smollett did is the equivalent of  stealing from the widows-and-orphans box.

Smollett’s phone records show that for months he repeatedly bought cocaine, Ecstasy, and marijuana from the brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, which he paid for via Paypal and Venmo, and that he wanted to meet with the brothers “face to face” to discuss “planning,” presumably for the fake attack. “N***a you still got a molly connect,” Smollett texted one of the brothers last September. “Hahahaha… Imma need a good fo pills Haha.”

Abimbola told police that just before staging the attack, for which he and his brother said they were paid $3,500, he hesitated because he saw a vehicle in the area and wondered whether police might notice the fake scuffle and shoot him. During the phony assault he shouted racist and anti-gay slurs as he had been hired to do, then lightly hit Smollet on the chin:  “It was a pretend punch because he didn’t want to knock him out,” said an affidavit. He then backed off in order to give the actor “a chance to fight back as he was scripted,” the statement continued.

Olabinjo Osundairo, who had appeared as an extra on Empire, told cops “that a plan was formulated and put into play by [redacted] to conduct a staged incident where [redacted] was beaten by Olabinjo Usundairo and Abimbola Osundairo posing as persons other than themselves,” a case report reads. Olabinjo Osundairo said the motive was that Smollett “was unhappy about the response he received over hate mail which was delivered to him.”

Detectives had from the start ample reason to be skeptical of Smollett’s story about the great Subway Sandwich Ambush of January 29, even as the Chicago Police Department unwisely spent weeks issuing public statements suggesting it believed the tall tale. The CPD’s efforts to be sensitive led journalists to write headlines such as this beauty, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on February 15 and was subsequently changed: “Chicago police arrest two men in Jussie Smollett case and say attack was not a hoax.” What a police spokesman actually said was, “There is no evidence to say that this is a hoax,” which was a bit misleading given that detectives were at that moment in the process of obtaining such evidence, namely the statements of the Osundairo brothers. It would have been better for the police, and better for the country, if they had simply said something like “Our investigation is continuing” throughout.

When police first interviewed Smollett, the newly released records show, they asked Smollett why his sweater wasn’t dirty, “to which he explained they were on snow and ice.” Smollett gave police only a redacted version of his phone records, frustrating their attempts to investigate. He declined to allow police to take a DNA swab, saying instead that he’d “think about it.” On February 6 a police document notes that Smollett refused to turn over medical records generated after he was examined in a hospital for the supposed injury.

Yet the decision by prosecutor Kim Foxx to let Smollett skate has probably maximized damage to his career. Because he didn’t have to plead guilty, Smollett mistakenly thinks the public sees him as innocent. Instead the public quite rightly thinks of him as a con artist, and of itself as the victim of a fraud. Had he pleaded guilty, he could now follow the well-established Hollywood formula for crafting a redemption arc. He could blame the drugs for messing up his mind, go into rehab, then perform a tearful, anguished mea culpa for Gayle King. He could apologize for stealing victim status from all the gay and black people who have actually suffered down the years. He could pour himself into doing charity for those same people. There are plenty of media co-conspirators who would eagerly assist Smollett in staging his own acts of humility and forget that Smollett’s hoax was a smear of Donald Trump supporters. Instead, his arrogance has landed him in limbo.

Smollett had a calculated plan to enrich himself by making fools of Americans, and those who eagerly complied were left red-faced with humiliation that turned to anger. Those who refused the jester’s bells are fully entitled to say “I told you so.” Yet the preferences revealed by the hoax are instructive, albeit unsurprising to anyone who remembers other chapters in the long saga of fake hate crimes. Daniels, who finally announced on Twitter on June 4 that Smollett had been dumped from Empire, told Vulture, “You would feel, ‘Please, God, please let there be that glimmer of hope that there is some truth in this story.’ That’s why it’s been so painful. It was a flood of pain.”

You read that right: Daniels, a gay black man, is in pain because another gay black man was not subjected to a vicious beating by racist homophobes. Good news is bad. Or, as Daniels put it when the fake news was initially reported, “Just another f***ing day in America.”

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