“Above all, I fought the fuck back.” It was Feb. 2, 2019, and Jussie Smollett, the most talked-about celebrity of the moment, was performing at a sold-out show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Days earlier, the young, Black, queer star of Empire had told police he’d been assaulted on the streets of Chicago; in the coming weeks, it would emerge that he had planned the attack himself. But that night, talking to a cheering crowd, Smollett finally had a spotlight on his music and the world stage.
Smollett pauses, waits for the crowd to silence before he makes his next remark, emphatically but with a chuckle: “I’m the gay Tupac.”
I remember watching the clip as it began to go viral, as people began questioning his story, and being taken slightly aback. Who says something like that? What point was he trying to make?
“I’m not fully healed yet, but I’m going to be, and I’m gonna stand strong with y’all,” he continued, to what was reported to be around 400 people. “I had to be here tonight, y’all. I couldn’t let those motherfuckers win.”
By early February 2019, pundits on the right had started chalking this up to his desire to be a victim, Jussie Smollett had set up the hoax to be the hero, not the victim. He didn’t want pity, I realized, he wanted respect.
Smollett, 39, would later be convicted on five of six counts of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report. Though he still maintains his innocence, on Thurs., March 10, he was sentenced to five months in prison, 30 months probation, and made to pay a $25,000 fine and $120,000 restitution to the city. (Smollett declined multiple interview requests from Rolling Stone.)
What would end in disgrace started as a terrifying news story. On Jan. 29, 2019, Smollett told authorities that two white men, hurling racist and homophobic slurs, violently attacked him blocks away from his apartment. At the time, Smollett said the men poured bleach on him and tied a noose around his neck, while they called him the n-word, boldly proclaiming “this is MAGA country.” With those elements at play, there was no reason not to consider this incident anything less than a hate crime.
Immediately after the attack, Smollett went to his apartment and told his story to a friend, choreographer Frank Gatson. Gatson, who was staying with Smollett at the time, contacted the police. Smollett then checked himself into an emergency room, where he was treated for pain and a few slight bruises to the face. He departed shortly after.
Empire director/producer Lee Daniels posted on Instagram a (now deleted) screenshot of a FaceTime exchange with a noticeably bruised Smollett at the hospital, so word quickly got around. Public sympathy quickly followed, with concern and support on social media from then-presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Cory Booker.
During that time, I, a Black queer millennial journalist, believed Smollett. I had previously covered the rise of hate crimes during Trump’s presidency and had Black and brown queer friends who had recently experienced blatant bigotry in public. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes grew in major American cities in the years leading up to Trump’s rise in political power.
Throughout the 2018 midterms, I received an increased level of racist, homophobic hate mail and threats for articles I had written that were critical of Trump and his supporters. It didn’t feel like a surprise that Smollett, who had also been publicly critical of Trump at the time, would be a target. As initial headlines surrounding Smollett’s attack were labeled as a “potential hate crime,” fans of the actor began criticizing on social media what we perceived as the press questioning the definition of a hate crime. “This attack was not ‘possibly’ homophobic. It was a racist and homophobic attack,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It is no one’s job to water down or sugar-coat the rise of hate crimes.”
I went viral for a tweet I posted around the time: “Anyone trying to ignore the fact that Jussie Smollett is BOTH Black & gay need to sit down. This was a racially-motivated homophobic attack…white supremacists made it a point to target both.” That same day, in an op-ed for The Daily Beast, I shared how this incident hit at the very core of both of my identities. “Moving forward, do not treat what happened to Smollett as an isolated incident but something that’s a glaring consequence of society’s entrenched struggle with race and sexuality,” I wrote. “If bigots can’t seem to separate their victims’ dual identities, neither should we.”
“The outpouring of love has meant more than I will ever be able to truly put into words,” he wrote. Weeks later, it came crashing down.
On Feb. 1, Smollett released his first statement: “Let me start by saying that I’m OK,” it read. “My body is strong but my soul is stronger. More importantly I want to say thank you. The outpouring of love and support from my village has meant more than I will ever be able to truly put into words.”
And then, weeks later, the public support, adoration, and trust came crashing down.
After strange public appearances and an interview that showed inconsistencies within his account, people started to question Smollett’s story – leading to the Chicago Police Department to shift its suspicions on him. On Feb. 20, 2019, Smollett was arrested and charged for disorderly conduct and filing a false police report. By then, police had found the two mysterious men responsible for what they were now considering a hoax: the Osundario brothers, Nigerian men whom Smollett had previously known and had worked with on and off the set of Empire. They weren’t white or MAGA-supporting. All of this was beginning to look like a publicity stunt gone bad.
“The influencer ecosystem was able to amplify his fake story to millions and millions of people across the globe,” conservative Daily Beast senior columnist Matt Lewis told Vanity Fair. “Victim status [has become] the pinnacle of moral authority… It’s not surprising to me that people are treating themselves as victims specifically, or members of a victim class.’”
Watching that GMA interview three years later, it’s clear how we got here. Smollett’s short-lived public admiration between the time of his attack and eventual arrest reveals more about his possible motive for inventing such a hoax — and society’s ongoing struggle with the intersections of race, sexuality, and masculinity.
To better understand how this could have happened, remember where we were in January 2019. Out Black queer men in pop culture were still largely an anomaly. Pose had just come out in the summer of 2018, and its star Billy Porter had not yet made history as the first openly Black gay actor to win the Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Drama. Black Queer musical phenom Lil Nas X’s groundbreaking hit “Old Town Road” had not smashed records on the Billboard charts. We didn’t have any openly Black gay men elected to Congress yet, and musician Frank Ocean was the closest Black mainstream artist we had at that time that “came out.”
What we did have at the time was the breakthrough television show Empire on FOX. The show’s Black producer and director was out and proud Lee Daniels, and it seemed like no accident that Jussie Smollett was the breakout star of the series. Smollett, who came from a famous family that includes his Emmy-nominated actress sister Jurnee Smollett, was known for a small child role in 1992’s The Mighty Ducks. Black queer men like myself would later remember him for starring in the 2012 indie gay film The Skinny.
Today, it might be hard to remember just how big of a damn deal Empire was at its height: A primetime show on national television whose first season centered on a Black family embracing their gay son was the highest rated original series when it premiered in 2015. There was no character like Smollett’s Jamal Lyon on television – he was confident, talented, bold, and unapologetically Black and queer. Smollett’s charismatic performance garnered him worldwide fame and major award nominations.
But by 2018, things began to fizzle. Once must-see TV, Empire began to feel redundant, overdone, and vapid. In 2017, I wrote a piece for Global Grind titled “The Hypersexual Gay Men On Empire Are Problematic AF” and noted how the stereotypes surrounding gay characters on the show were “below the belt, even for ratchet television.” Several seasons into the series it began to feel like Smollett was being type-cast: A light-skinned Black gay man who’s sexually promiscuous and addicted to drugs. Think the tragic mulatto trope, but with a Black queer narrative instead. Even worse, unlike his heterosexual castmates, Smollett wasn’t seeing any major roles outside of the show emerge.
“I want them to see that I fought back,” he said on Feb. 14. “They ran off, I didn’t.”
A record deal he once had with Columbia Records also fell through in 2017, and he began to produce music independently that didn’t garner much traction. For example, most probably don’t recall that his debut album Sum of My Music even came out a year before his criminal charges. It never cracked onto the Billboard 200 charts when it was released in March 2018.
“I was sitting in a room full of old straight white men, playing them the stuff that I’d put my heart and soul and my pain and my joy in and they’re telling me what piece of that should be heard by the people that it actually was created for. I’m like, ‘Well that doesn’t feel like freedom,’” Smollett told the Associated Press that June. “And it was in that meeting that I literally was like, ‘I gotta go, I gotta go.’”
At that point, it became clear that Smollett’s star power was falling fast, and something needed to change quickly. What he would later do to try to salvage it would become a bizarre tale of what happens when fame takes over.
Listening to the few remarks Smollett had given the public between Feb. 1 up until his arrest on Feb. 21, he was adamant on speaking about how he “fought the fuck back” compared to dwelling on the attack himself.
On Feb. 14, he gave an interview to Robin Roberts on Good Morning America that quickly became infamous for how emotionally performative he appeared. “I just want young people, young members of the LBGTQ community, young Black children, to know how strong that they are,” he said. “I want them to see that I fought back. I want a little gay boy to see that I fought the fuck back. They ran off, I didn’t.”
“I have fought for love. I am an advocate.”
While many pundits and the public at large were beginning to be skeptical of Smollett after his interview on GMA, many of them focused on the tears and physical theatrics of it rather than what he was actually saying. It became clear to me that the doomed actor was trying to rewrite the narrative of his own hoax to fill a societal void for Black queer men: When was the last time we saw someone like us in pop culture who fought the fuck back?
We witnessed Jamal Lyon buck against a homophobic music industry in Empire, one that often underestimated his talent because of his sexuality. Perhaps that’s what the industry was doing to Smollett in real life – we had yet to see an openly Black gay male artist at the time dominate music. How society felt about race, masculinity, and fame was not as progressive as it should have been during that time. Smollett was seeing his personal life mirror that of his character in real time. How else was he going to redefine it?
Smollett was trying to embody such boldness in that moment, he was the one who said he fought back for the rest of us, that his hubris was destined to backfire. We were supposed to talk about how, in spite of all the bad things that happened to him that night, Smollett was still able to stand up strong and keep his head up. A Hollywood underdog came out on top.
According to the Department of Justice, most hate crimes go largely unsolved. Given the massive attention to Smollett’s case, though, it was hard for the Chicago Police Department not to get to the bottom of it. Smollett was afforded the kind of law enforcement resources that most people don’t get. He abused the system for his own celebrity, offering a disappointing reminder of how fame is a drug, even for the most promising stars.
In 2022, the state of Black queer men in pop culture has evolved. Since 2019, we now have the bold outspoken musical superstar in the force that is Lil Nas X, the continuous rise of Billy Porter on the big and small screen, and more representation in politics, film, and fashion overall. They are the Black queer heroes we had finally been waiting for.
Meanwhile, Smollett has been sentenced after a jury found him guilty for faking his own hate crime.
Now, I’m left with the disappointment of what could have been for him. We seriously could have had it all — more Black queer representation, more collaboration, more impact — but progress couldn’t come soon enough for Jussie Smollett, and by insisting on making himself the story, he lost everything else.
This story has been updated to include details of Smollett’s sentencing.