The Unbelievable Story of Jussie Smollett
with John McWhorter
The actor Jussie Smollett, who gained fame for his breakout role on the TV show Empire, was found guilty last week on five of six charges of disorderly conduct for lying to Chicago police. In 2019, Smollett claimed he was assaulted by two white men late at night on the streets of Chicago. Smollett said the men, who were allegedly wearing MAGA hats, accosted him, poured bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck. At the time, the case seemed to be an outrageous instance of Trump-inspired racial violence. Fans, activists, politicians, media figures, and what seemed like all of Hollywood offered vocal support to Smollett.
But it turns out that none of it was true. The men who perpetrated the “assault” were actually two Nigerian immigrants who Smollett had paid to help him stage a phony attack. There were no white men, there were no MAGA hats. As the police investigation proceeded, the absurdity of Smollett’s claims became more and more apparent. Two white guys in MAGA hats roaming the streets of Chicago on a freezing winter night with a bottle of bleach and a noose? And they just happen to run into (and recognize!) a fairly well-known but not incredibly famous gay black actor?
The reason Smollett did this remains a little mysterious, as he still refuses to admit that he fabricated the whole thing. We can only speculate. But the reactions to the assault before it was revealed as a hoax are quite telling. The usual suspects were all too willing to take things at face value and to interpret Smollett’s story as yet another example of American white supremacy run amok. That narrative was ready and waiting—Smollett just had to slip into the victim role. The credulity of Smollett’s supporters wasn’t mere naiveté. It was a political stance, one that requires victims if it’s going to hold steady. In fact, it’s easy to imagine Smollett getting away with the whole thing and ascending to the role of antiracist icon, if only he hadn’t cooked up such an outlandish scenario.
John and I found this story irresistible, of course. And not only because it demonstrates how easily the so-called antiracist politics of the woke left can be coopted, and are in some ways already coopted, by bad actors (no pun intended). It’s also a fascinating, unresolved drama. What will happen to Jussie Smollett? And will we learn anything from his story?
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GLENN LOURY: I'm thinking about Jussie Smollett. This is the Empire TV show actor who was convicted in court in Chicago recently of lying about having been attacked, a racist attack that in 2019 got national attention where he claimed that he was jumped by some Trump supporters who shouted, “This is MAGA country!” at him as they poured bleach on him, pummeled him at two o'clock in the morning when he was coming back from a Subway dispensary with a hoagie.
JOHN MCWHORTER: [laughs] How did they know he was going to be there?
Et cetera. And it turns out, according to the jury and the evidence, that he in fact staged the whole thing and that he hired a couple of Nigerian guys to fake beating him up. Long story. We won't go into all the details. But Jussie Smollett was hailed as a victim of white supremacy during the era of Trump at the time that this alleged attack took place by people who reacted, prominent people like Kamala Harris and Robin Roberts of Good Morning America. I looked her up. She makes $18 million a year.
Robin Roberts makes $18 million a year to anchor the morning show at ABC. And she had Jussie Smollett on for an interview. He cried on camera during the interview as he recounted this horrible abuse, and Robin Roberts was so sympathetic to him. “That was beautiful, Jussie,” I believe is a quote from her. Parting words to Jussie Smollett during this interview. And they all have come up with egg on their face.
And I just wonder, I mean, there's a lot here. Kim Foxx, who's the district attorney in Chicago, didn't want to bring charges against Jussie at all, even though the police had him dead to rights that he had staged the whole thing. Created national controversy, it was an example of lynching. I mean, the politicians, the Maxine Waterses and the Corey Bookers, who could be found tweeting out, you know, “This is a lynching in our time.” The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the world were all lined up behind Jussie, who was our most recent exemplar of an age-old American story of anti-black hatred, and anti-gay, because he's a gay man. So it was homophobia as well as anti-black racism and whatnot.
And it turns out it was a hoax, a hoax, a hoax. Now he's been convicted, I think, of five out of six charges that the Chicago PD were able to bring against him. It took a special prosecutor in the Cook County court system to bring this black TV star, well-connected person to justice. And he awaits sentencing. He also apparently perjured himself, because he took the stand and repeated his story and denied that it was a hoax. And now he's been convicted on the evidence of having invented the thing. The question of whether the perjury charges will be brought is an open question. I have no expertise about whether or not that will be happening. But he could get jail time. It depends. What do you make of all of this?
He fascinates me, in that, if I were an artist, I would do a novel. How is he going to live with himself? He's clearly lying, and on some level he's papered it over so that he pretends to think that he isn't. But deep down, it's such an open and shut case. And I just wonder, when he's 50, is he going to be doing the Tawana Brawley and claiming in front of audiences that something happened to me, you know, implying that maybe some of it was fabricated a little, but that he was basing it on something real? Is he just gonna admit it? Is he gonna start using drugs and die at 45?
Fascinating figure, to make something like that up that stupid, and then to have it all fall apart and to pretend that he actually was telling the truth. It's one of those things with him. I remember the interview with Robin Roberts where he said, “I fought the fuck back.” Like he's trying to make believe he's tough.
Yeah, that's exactly right.
And then he had another speech. This didn't get as much around. He was addressing some group in Los Angeles, and he was comparing himself to Tupac, and he was reading from note cards.
He's “the gay Tupac.” Isn't that what he said, something like that?
Yeah. And he's reading from cards. It's like, can't you just get up and say something? Even then, he has to read it from cards because it's not real and he wants to keep himself honest to the story that he's told. But that was a beautiful example of something. It's before, also, the Great Awokening of May 2020, because it was a year before that, where he thought … and actually it makes sense.
Talk about art, you could have him in a miniseries. David Simon should create a Jussie Smollett when he does a show about basically what happened in 2020. Where he clearly thought that he would be more interesting and more influential and maybe up his salary on Empire to be the victim of a hate crime than just to be probably one of the most interesting performers on a show that was talked about quite a bit. On Empire, Taraji Henson walked away with it. But after you were finished thinking about her, you thought about him and that interesting, rather pioneering character, a black gay hip-hopper.
She played Cookie?
Yeah. He's the son. There's the other son who's kind of more thuggy, and then there's him. And he is this very interesting character. I remember people telling me to watch Empire, and usually it was mostly because of that thread. And he was doing a very good job on the show. I watched about the first two seasons of it, then I got enough.
But that wasn't enough. He wanted to be the victim of a hate crime, because he knew that would make him look very, very cool. And then he tries to play it. But apparently he doesn't concentrate hard enough to come up with a plausible story. And now here he is, pretending that “something happened to him.” His Twitter is still, “All I want to do is save the world.” He wants to be this preacher. You can see that in him before. His Twitter was a little preachy for somebody in their thirties. It's like, he wanted to be some kind of elder. He comes from actual civil rights heroes, and you can tell...
His father's white.
Right, but his mother's not. And he wants to keep it going, but he lives in these times when it's harder to do that than it used to be, because the issues are more abstract. And so he ends up making something up. He is such a totem of how hard it can be to be black and do the right thing and make sense in our post-civil rights era, and particularly the twenty-first century. You just knew somebody was going to pull something like that, and he did.
Your question, how does he live with this five years out, ten, twenty years out? Does he stick by his guns and insist that he's been victimized and that the Chicago police framed him? Or does at some point he say, “Look, okay, we all make mistakes and I put this one behind me.”
“I was young.”
And I have no way of knowing what he will do. I can see the attractiveness of sticking by one's guns, in that there will be, just as there are people who believe “hands up, don't shoot” about Michael Brown and people who believe that Trayvon Martin really was hunted down and murdered by a vicious, et cetera. You know, there are going to be people who are going to believe Jussie. If Jussie says it happened ... Who are you going to believe? Me or the Chicago Police Department?
In fact, I believe a Black Lives Matter spokesperson in LA is quoted in the newspaper as having said, “Jussie Smollett is on our side, fighting for justice for black people. The Chicago Police Department are SOBs. I'll believe him over them any day of the week. He's our guy.” So, you know, 10% or whatever of the world is going to stick by him no matter what. That's a few people, and he could stick by his guns.
The other thing that interests me is this interrelationship between reality and fiction. I believe you're right. He reckoned that, as a victim of a racist attack, his caché as an actor would be enhanced. Perhaps those who write the script for Empire would find space for more words and more time on screen for the Jussie Smollett who had been victimized by racist MAGA hat thugs than the Jussie Smollett who was just a guy with a pretty good voice and who's a pretty good actor who was playing a part. They could elevate him in the series if indeed he were the victim of this hate crime.
So the two things merge together. But since it was a hoax, it means that the fiction part is on both sides of the line. The fiction part is on what's going on in the scripted TV show and the fiction part is on how I'm carrying myself in the world. And I can manufacture the script on either side of that line, and they interact with each other favorably.
But frankly, the story is so stupid. It's two o'clock in the morning. It's 15 degrees. There are these supposed two whites. They watch Empire? They know who Jussie Smollett is? They're waiting for him? Or even if it's not that they're waiting for him and would recognize them, which they wouldn't, especially if he's all hooded up, who are they waiting for at two o'clock in the morning in those temperatures to do these things to with this equipment on them? What kind of human behavior is that?
As soon as that came out, I thought, as I'd seen Smollett's Twitter feed for a random reason, I thought, “Wait a minute. Is this real?” Because you can see a certain melodramatic self-dramatizing quality in this person. And I just tabled it. I didn't think about it that much, but I thought, “Something's wrong with that.” Did none of those people ... there's no way they couldn't have seen it.
But Glenn, this is the thing. Those people sincerely believe that something like that could happen. They actually think that racism is still so bad—I'm not going to speak for homophobia—but racism is so bad that that story could be plausible. I don't think they're acting. And so a lot of what frustrates us, I often say that these people are striking a pose because it's part of this religion. But I have to understand that, to an extent, they mean it. They actually think that could happen. They think it's 1950. And I don't quite know why, except that they sequester logic off when it comes to race. This is where my religious analysis comes from. Kamala Harris, for example. I'm not trying to dog pile on her ...
... but how could she believe that?
Well, just consider that maybe she didn't really believe it, but that her response of the sort that she gave, “Oh, poor Jussie, a victim of a modern-day lynching. We're with you. Solidarity. White supremacy must be stopped,” is a part of the act. It is in itself as much of a pose as was the original ...
It must be!
... as was the original fraudulent representation that came from Jussie Smollett. That reaction is pro forma. You could teach a machine to give it. It could have been a bot writing these tweets. Any black person victimized must be celebrated as a latter-day instance of the Emmett Till lynching, because that's the America that we live in. I mean, there was so much implausible about the story, it's not even funny. MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporters in Central City, Chicago? Two white guys at 2:00 AM? Do you know what's going on in the streets of Chicago?
What are they doing there?
Wearing MAGA hats? They wouldn't last a minute. There are roaming gangs of black teenagers on the streets of Chicago. That's what the retailers, the hoteliers, and the restaurateurs are complaining about. Nobody wants to go to Downtown Chicago at 2:00 AM, because it's not a particularly hospitable environment for Trump supporters in a precinct that probably went 98% for Joseph Biden in 2020, 98% for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Dave Chappelle has a whole routine on this thing. He calls him Juicy Smollier, and he makes fun of his name. This is Dave Chappelle. He says “Black people”—and this is ordinary black people, not black people who run for office and who have to engage in the polls; this is commonsensical black people who work for a living and who live on the South Side of Chicago or the East Side of Detroit or whatever—“didn't believe that nigga’ for a minute,” is what Dave Chappelle said. Because it was entirely ... and he waits with a noose around his neck for the police to come. “They put a noose on me, they put a noose on me.”
Why didn't you take it off?
“They poured bleach on me.” They're armed with bleach? They're walking around with bleach waiting for somebody?
Because they wouldn't be waiting. It means they came for him. Why would they care about Jussie Smollett, these guys? It doesn't make any sense. Wouldn't they go after somebody else?
The police charged him and the courts convicted him after a special prosecutor had to be called in, in part because huge resources of the Chicago Police Department were devoted to investigating this hoax when they could have been deployed to fight the awful crime wave that's going on in the city. But in part, because the damage to the social fabric done by the promulgating of such a false tale, causing partisan division; causing, in the extreme, people into the streets demonstrating; causing perhaps riot and arson, and so forth like that. This is the kind of thing that this fraudulent representation contributes to, is a social affront.
It's a bad thing for us. So he deserves punishment. I don't want to say jail time. I'm not the judge. Leniency is not a bad thing. He doesn't have a record. Maybe he could be out on community service and probation and whatnot. Jail time for a guy like him would be pretty tough. But he definitely deserves some kind of sanction for this, in my opinion.