After Jussie Smollett, Let's Reconsider the Role of Celebrities in Activist Movements
Chicago Police sources now suggest he staged what he says was a racist and homophobic attack on him. Smollett vigorously denies it. Whatever the truth, it's a moment to reflect.
Right now I feel bamboozled, betrayed, and hoodwinked. Maybe my feelings will change, maybe this very strange story will take another baffling twist or turn.
But I was devastated on Saturday when news broke that two police sources with knowledge of the investigation into the attack on Empire actor Jussie Smollett had told CNN that they believe he paid two brothers from Nigeria to stage his assault.
The brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, (who both previously worked out with Smollett, with Olabinjo also appearing as an extra on Empire in 2015) were questioned on Wednesday and released without charges Friday.
Smollett is sticking with his story. As shock among his supporters spread online, the actor's defense lawyers, Todd S. Pugh and Victor P. Henderson, released a statement saying that he had not staged the attack, that "Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying."
The statement continued: "As a victim of a hate crime who has cooperated with the police investigation, Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with. He has now been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack…
"One of these purported suspects was Jussie's personal trainer who he hired to ready him physically for a music video. It is impossible to believe that this person could have played a role in the crime against Jussie or would falsely claim Jussie's complicity.
"Jussie and his attorneys anticipate being further updated by the Chicago Police Department on the status of the investigation and will continue to cooperate. At the present time, Jussie and his attorneys have no inclination to respond to 'unnamed' sources inside of the investigation, but will continue discussions through official channels."
Perhaps like many following this story today, Sunday, the questions, amid all this claim and counter-claim are: Who and what to believe? If it's true that he staged it, why did he do it? Was the interview he gave to ABC earlier this week merely performance?
As more facts continue to unfold, one thing is for certain: It’s time for us to all re-evaluate the role of celebrities within activist movements.
I wrote in defense of Smollett in The Daily Beast when reports surfaced of the alleged attack, and it pains me to say this, but I no longer believe the actor.
At this point, it’s now safe to imply that something is incredibly bizarre about this entire situation. It will only be a matter of time before the whole ordeal is revealed, but I’m not holding my breath any longer.
The police wouldn’t have immediately released those brothers connected to Smollett’s alleged assault without good reason. CBS reported that the brothers were paid $3,500 before leaving for Nigeria and promised $500 more on their return—and that’s where all the dominos fell for me. If this is true, these men weren’t the MAGA white men in masks who Smollett initially claimed were yelling racial and homophobic slurs at him while putting a rope around his neck. They were actually two black men who he knew very well that were allegedly paid off to make him a victim of a fake hate crime. They are now fully cooperating with the police, and may discredit all that Smollett told us.
I’m so disgusted right now, and the only phrase that keeps going in my head is “there goes the neighborhood.”
Social media has now been littered with reactivated online bigots who are already using this high-profile scandal to immediately discredit the lived experiences of countless Black LGBTQ people. In an instant turn of events, this situation has fueled a false sense of legitimacy in some MAGA supporters who already routinely discount racism and homophobia in America.
Smollett pulled from both his identities—being Black and gay—to draw empathy across the board. Now both communities will have to endure another high-tech lynching from trolls who will make Smollett the poster-child for not believing victims of hate crimes.
This situation reminds me of Tawana Brawley, the black woman who falsely accused four white men of raping her in 1987. Just like Smollett, Brawley claimed racial slurs were used during her attack, which generated immediate media attention and the call for black activists to rally behind her.
Similar sentiments were felt during the Duke Lacrosse Case in 2006, when a black woman named Crystal Gail Mangum falsely accused white players from Duke University of raping her and calling her racial epithets.
These public scandals abused the resources of a social justice movement that would go on to be unfairly tarnished these lies. For example, comments under my previous tweets initially standing up for Smollett are already being mocked and ridiculed. I can only imagine how this will impact the Black and LGBTQ community as a whole.
But despite all of this, I don’t regret initially believing Jussie Smollett.
Like many, I strive to believe victims—especially those from marginalized communities. As a black gay man, Smollett’s account pulled at my heartstrings because I have experienced acts of racism and homophobia in my personal life. I think one would have to be a little jaded to instantly presume the worst in people who haven’t displayed any prior reasons for you to do otherwise.
Until now, Smollett was an appreciated voice for racial justice and LGBTQ equality. He was a role model and a positive example of how to be Black, out, and proud in Hollywood. His breakthrough role in Empire as Jamal Lyon was a revelation and inspired many, including myself, to keep having conversations with my black family about inclusion and acceptance. To have not believed Smollett in the beginning would have felt like an abomination to all that I stood for: To believe victims and stand up for Black and LGBTQ people under attack.
It now appears as though Smollett may have betrayed that sacred trust. For whatever reason, he might have felt the need to mislead his devout following to fuel a crazy obsession with fame. Or was he seeking to make a political or cultural point, but in the worst kind of way based on a lie that would be revealed as such once it was investigated?
Whatever the truth of this, whatever Smollett did, the amount of poisonous backlash it is producing is also instructive.
Too much of the credibility of current social justice work done by local activists is falling on the backs of famed influencers who have proven to be faulty. We saw this during the #MeToo movement with actress Rose McGowan and her self-serving feuds that sometimes distracted real efforts being carried out by creator Tarana Burke. Or the countless times the Black Lives Matter movement is called into question by the controversies that revolve around activist/writer Shaun King.
Now with Smollett’s scandal, intersectional activism calling for the protection of LGBTQ people of color will continue to be further polarized due to this unnecessary drama he’s brought our way.
Fame is a terrible drug, one that ruins the most promising people who get caught up in it. The cult of celebrity has proven itself once again of derailing the true work of everyday people fighting to survive. It’s high time that we begin to re-focus our attention on their efforts, and not the red carpet draw of those awaiting a close-up for being adjacent to the activism.
While I won’t let this devastating blow stop me from believing true victims, I will also no longer rely on woke celebrities to dictate the narrative. Give the power back to the people, not Hollywood.
Ernest Owens is the Writer at Large for Philadelphia magazine and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. The award-winning journalist has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, MTV News and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and at ernestowens.com