What Becomes of Jussie Smollett Now?

He's either a victim or playing a victim, and neither are great roles.

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What kind of career will Jussie Smollett have now? Will he even have one? I suppose his staunchest defenders will take umbrage at these questions while those who’d have preferred to reserve judgment until the justice system rendered its verdict might rather avoid the topic altogether. But this entire mess — and it’s a huge, honking, horrible mess — is wholly unsatisfying from the viewpoint of the public. And please, for the love of all things human, don’t argue that the public isn’t involved. To do so will insult everyone who cares about the plague of hate crimes or has had, or has feared, a hate crime perpetrated upon them. Smollett either was or was not attacked by a group of MAGA morons; he either did or did not mail himself a letter containing a white substance; and he either did or did not pay one or both of the Osundairo brothers to help him stage an “attack” that included his head being put in a noose. We had better talk about what kind of career he will have now because that will tell us everything we need to know about our values in 2019.

Let’s start with: I don’t get it. Do you? When the Chicago prosecutors dropped the charges against Smollett earlier this week, they let him forfeit his bond; this implies something less than exoneration yet allows his legal team to maintain his innocence. Even as I write this, the city of Chicago is demanding that Smollett reimburse some $130,000 in costs related to the investigation or face additional prosecution. (Everyone’s clearly keeping things classy.) Smollett’s lawyers are also, at this time, not requesting an expungement of his record, even though such a request is now within his rights. Why not?

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None of us really knows what Smollett did or did not do, or did or did not have done to him, or with him, or for him, or whatever. And because we lack clear and provable facts, as opposed to rumor and supposition, we could continue to presume that there’s some band of MAGA morons out there, right now, targeting young Black LGBTQ men. Think about it: If Smollett is sticking to his original story, as his lawyers claim, then they must still out there, right? Right?

Oh, but nobody in the media seems worried about that. And straight people, please listen up, because I’m not engaging in some kind of cute rhetoric here. If you’re not LGBTQ and your brain defaults such that the hate-crime aspect of this story seems easy now for you to gloss over, you don’t get off so easy. It infuriates me that this entire mess has swept under the proverbial rug the question of whether there was or was not a hate crime committed here. Surely you’re capable of acknowledging that heterosexuals tend not to be attuned to the fear of being assaulted in the street because they’re straight; surely you’re capable of recognizing that white people tend not to be attuned to the fear of being assaulted in the street because they’re white. Pity that not all of us benefit from your privilege.

And yes, I’m white. I’m also LGBTQ, and I live in a nation where a homophobic attack isn’t some faraway concept but something that a remarkable number of people that I know are more than familiar with. For this reason, when I learned that Smollett had been attacked by some MAGA-loving morons and that a noose — a noose — was placed around his neck, I wanted to know who the hell did that and where the hell they were. If that happened to Smollett, if that really happened to him, you should be demanding that the perpetrators be caught. Not tomorrow. Not someday. But now. And if this didn’t happen to Smollett, if the whole incident was however you wish to characterize it — say, a stunt of some kind — then what is the right punishment for someone who has made it so much more challenging for the next hate crime victim, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, to come forward? Is the right punishment a flourishing career in Hollywood?

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When the Chicago prosecutors dropped all charges, they freed Smollett from the imminent legal threat of 16 felony convictions but did not free him from public scrutiny. To presume that he can just resume his career is folly: no attempt at lawyerly nuance on cable news is going to change anyone’s minds. Watch this; you tell me who wins in any of this. I submit that no one wins at all:

Smollett, the Osundairo brothers, the city of Chicago — even those totally kind and civil MAGA morons — they all lose. And so does everyone involved in the TV show Empire on which Smollett was featured. Lee Daniels, who created Empire, gave an interview a little more than a week ago referencing the “pain” and “sadness” caused by Smollett — which is Tinseltown code for “Dude, really?” And man, this TV show must have the largest cast and creative team and crew ever assembled in history because it seems like half an hour can’t go by without another story on this Empire person standing with him or that Empire person not standing with him, or perhaps changing their minds about Smollett entirely. Here’s just one amusing example of well-done deflection:

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Come on, Media. What would you really have these actors say? If things happened as maintained by Smollett and his legal team, then this terrible thing happened to their beloved colleague. If things didn’t happen as maintained by Smollett and his legal team, then this terrible thing happened because of their beloved colleague. Which doesn’t mean that Smollett’s career gets to simply pick up from where it left off — but does it mean that it couldn’t? Shouldn’t it matter whether he was demonstrably a victim or not?

So much kerosene has been splashed on this fire. This was from a few days ago, so it’s old news now, but I suggest that it’s worth re-reading this op-ed in the Chicago Tribune:

After State’s Attorney Kim Foxx makes errors of judgment that lead her to recuse herself, after Chicago detectives expend thousands of man hours doing meticulous work, after police Superintendent Eddie Johnson excoriates Smollett publicly for dragging the city’s name through the mud, after Foxx’s prosecutors take the case before a grand jury, after the grand jurors indict Smollett on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct … after all that, Cook County prosecutors shock Chicagoans and the rest of the country on Tuesday with news that they’re dropping all charges against Smollett.

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This is why I’m thinking about Smollett’s next steps. NBC News also pursued this story. After a quote from a communications expert for the lede, these two paragraphs followed:

In interviews with NBC News, four other public relations experts said they believed that Smollett’s career in the entertainment industry was tarnished but salvageable. Two other communications experts said they believed Smollett’s career most likely could not be resurrected.

“I think his reputation has been very severely damaged by this case, and he can’t expect everything to go right back to normal,” said Eden Gillott, president of a crisis communications firm that represents businesses, athletes and celebrities. “But if he is patient and hard-working, it’s possible to come back from this.”

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This debacle is a symptom, not a disease. Actually, three diseases, by my count:

  1. The mainstreaming of MAGA, because the behavior described by Smollett’s complaint is completely within the realm of the plausible;
  2. The capacity of those that identify as LGBTQ to harbor and to act on self-hatred (see new statistics on the pre-teen and teenage suicide rate);
  3. Society’s overwhelming obsession with seeking, accruing and amplifying fame.

If, as the Chicago Tribune suggests, Chicagoans and “Americans for that matter, will doubtless feel bamboozled by [prosecutor] Foxx’s office, and used by Smollett,” then it’s down to one of two scenarios for the actor. Producers hire him left and right and he does his image “salvaging” and in a year or two or 12 people will say “Remember that?” and it will all be one big, silly cultural chuckle. Or producers don’t hire him left and right and this episode hangs over Smollett indefinitely. The likelihood of each scenario will be predicated on your own personal cynicism, indignation and outrage, not necessarily in that order.

I want justice for the victims of hate crimes. Smollett is either a victim or playing a victim, and neither are great roles. Ironically, he always seemed like a good actor to me.