If Jussie Smollett Lied, What Then?
Do we make all crime survivors defendants in their own attacks?
If only Empire’s fifth and current season contained a storyline as compelling as the arc involving one of its stars that has been playing out in real life over the past three weeks.
Jussie Smollett, the 36-year-old gay black actor/singer who plays gay black singer Jamal Lyon on the FOX drama series, has been at the center of a “Was he or wasn’t he?” controversy over his claim that he was assaulted by two “MAGA”-shouting men on the deserted streets of Chicago at 2 a.m. on January 29.
Almost from the moment the story broke, reactions were predictably divided. This is Trump’s America, after all. One side was incensed that such a racist, homophobic attack could have happened in the name of “MAGA.” (According to Smollett, the assailants shouted racist and homophobic slurs as well as “This is MAGA country!” during the scuffle.)
On the other side, skeptics were rolling their eyes. The story, they insisted, didn’t add up. Why didn’t street cameras capture the assault? Why didn’t Smollett immediately give his phone to authorities to confirm that he had been speaking with his manager at the time of the attack? Why would Trump supporters know an actor from a show as black as Empire? (The latter assertion/question, implies, perhaps unintentionally, that Trumpians are indeed too racist to watch a TV series with a predominantly black cast.)
Even Donald Trump Jr. joined the Smollett bashing on Twitter, presumably not out of any interest in justice but to protect the sanctity of “MAGA,” the acronym for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. Anti-Smollett tweets and retweets have dominated Junior’s Twitter feed over the past several days. What an obedient son.
In a way, some of the skepticism feels as dubious to me as the alleged assault does to the doubters. If it had happened to a white celebrity who said the attackers were Muslim or Mexican, if it had been a random beatdown without racist, homophobic, “MAGA” overtones, if it had happened to a non-celebrity, I wonder if people would have been so quick not to believe.
The plot thickens
Over the last few days, the story has shifted considerably. Two Nigerian brothers who were arrested in connection with the attack, claim Smollett paid them to stage the assault. Alleged circumstantial evidence — including bottles of bleach reportedly found in their apartment, a professional connection to Smollett and Empire — apparently lend a degree of credibility to their confessions.
The twist in the case led CNN to round up a “Reliable Sources” panel to discuss the latest developments on February 17. They wondered out loud why Robin Roberts didn’t grill Smollett harder during his February 14 appearance on Good Morning America.
In addition to their belated, hindsight tsk-tsk-ing (where was their righteous indignation over Roberts’ soft interview last week, before the new “evidence” surfaced?), CNN also published an article titled: “Why the Jussie Smollett case warranted skepticism from the very start.”
The article makes some fairly valid points about the media and how too many journalists base their “reporting” on the work of other journalists rather than seeking out the truth for themselves. What the piece doesn’t address is this: Are the stories that the Nigerian brothers are selling to the police worthy of the same skepticism that the Jussie Smollett case warranted from the start?
In an age where nothing seems to happen off-camera, do we now side-eye every crime that’s reported without video or photographic evidence (which, by the way, can be staged just as easily as an incident that happens off-camera)? Do we now suspect every reported assault and attack, particularly ones that involve racism, homophobia, and “MAGA” flag-waving?
Do we rethink #MeToo, which insists that we must believe women who say they’ve been sexually harassed and/or assaulted? Is it now OK to question their accounts, to suggest that the man might be innocent until proven guilty, without being crucified?
For someone who has had so much to say on the subject (see my essays on it for Queerty and The Root here and here), I’m cautiously on the fence regarding what actually went down with Smollett in the wee hours of January 29. I don’t have answers to any of the questions above.
However the Smollett case turns out, I wish people like Donald Trump Jr. would stop using it as ammunition to support his father’s apparent belief that with him at its helm, America is greater than it’s ever been. Now there’s a lie that’s worthy of all the skepticism we can possibly muster.