Jussie Smollett took the witness stand Monday at his trial in Chicago on disorderly conduct charges for staging a racist, homophobic attack against himself nearly two years ago and then allegedly lying to Chicago police about it.
“There was no hoax,” Smollett maintained throughout nearly four hours of questioning by lead defense attorney Nenye Uche.
The defense focused on dislodging last week’s testimony from brothers Abimbola and Olabingo Osundairo. They claimed Smollett recruited them for the hoax to get publicity, that he paid them $3,500 to carry it out, and that Smollett gave them $100 in cash for supplies, which included a rope to be placed around his neck like a noose. All of which Smollett staunchly denied on the witness stand Monday.
Smollett rebuked that he sought any additional attention, saying he was satisfied with his role on Empire, and that he auditioned for Empire’s Jamal Lyon, a gay singer, because he had never seen a Black man portrayed that way on television – the actor had come to terms with his own sexuality in his early twenties when he got involved with nonprofits, including one that fights AIDS in the Black community, he said. By season five, Smollett testified that he was making $100,000 per episode.
The pressure of fame was so much, he said, that he turned to drugs as a coping mechanism. The pressure he was under was “more than any other cast member,” he said. Recreational drugs were something he often did with Abimbola, who Smollett met at a club in 2017, before learning that Abimbola was a background actor on Empire. When asked if Smollett regretted doing drugs, he testified that he did. In an effort to debunk prosecutors’ theory that there was a dry run of the attack, Uche established that it was not unusual for Smollett and Abimbola to hang out in Smollett’s Mercedes and smoke weed together. The two also “made out” on two occasions. Smollett also testified that Abimbola’s brother, Olabingo, never liked him.
Smollett testified that because of their friendship and Abimbola’s proximity to his life, Smollett asked his friend to help him to get in shape for an upcoming music video– what was supposed to be an all-male version of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”– and that the $3,500 payment was for training sessions and nutrition plans. Defense attorneys called up Smollett’s former payments to trainers, with the actor stating that in the entertainment industry it’s normal to shell out thousands of dollars on private fitness. Smollett said this was also the source of illusive text messages and private meetings between the two friends; Abimbola had told the actor he could get him an “herbal steroid” for weight loss that was illegal in the United States, but legal in Nigeria – where the two brothers planned to soon visit.
In describing the attack that took place in the early hours of Jan. 29, 2019, Smollett said he had just returned from out of town and stopped by a Subway near his downtown apartment to get a sandwich. When he crossed the street to head back to his apartment, someone yelled the name of his show before slinging racist, homophobic slurs at the actor. When he turned to confront the person, the actor, who is 5’11,” said the assailant towered over him. Smollett pointed to his left temple, where he said the person hit him. “I would like to think I landed a punch. But I don’t know if it landed,” Smollett said.
He then said he lost his balance on the icy sidewalk, falling to the ground where he and his masked attacker wrestled for a few seconds before a second person kicked him in the side – and then both ran away. Smollett had assumed the attackers were white because they had used a racial slur and yelled “MAGA country,” a reference to former president Donald Trump’s campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again.” At the time of the attack, he had no reason to believe Abimbola or Olabingo, who are Black, were involved. The brothers testified last week that Smollett instructed them to yell “MAGA country” during the allegedly orchestrated attack.
Smollett didn’t notice the noose around his neck until he got back to his apartment building, he said, when he returned to his unit where his friend and creative director, Frank Gatson, had been waiting for him. It was then, at Gatson’s suggestion, that they decided to involve the cops. Involving the Chicago Police Department was not something Smollett initially wanted to do.
“There are a few reasons I didn’t call the police. First, I am a Black man in America, I do not trust the police,” Smollett said. “I am also a well known figure and I am an openly gay man; I am an actor, I want to play a boxer, I want to play Superman, but the moment I got beat I became a f-ggot who got his ass beat.”
“Calling the police would somehow emasculate you?” Uche asked. “It did,” Smollett replied.
The actor also said that he hated the attention he got from the incident and that he lost his livelihood as a result. After hours of testimony, Smollett took solace in a few minutes break before the prosecution began their cross examination, resting his head on his sister Jurnee’s shoulder in the courtroom.
In the hour before jurors would be allowed to break for the day, to return Tuesday morning, prosecutors began their cross examination looking to establish that Smollett had evaded complying with law enforcement during the investigation. Smollett maintained that he complied to the degree he was asked, but that he also valued his and his family’s privacy.
Prosecutors had previously alleged that Smollett staged the attack because he was unhappy with Empire producers’ response to hate mail he had received at the studio, hoping that the attack would make them take the threats more seriously. But Smollett testified Monday that showrunners’ response to the hate mail was in fact “corny” and that they were “doing too much.”
Brett Mahoney, an Empire producer, testified earlier on Monday that law enforcement was contacted and the letter in question was turned over to authorities. He said Smollett agreed to additional security, but did not want guards following him home. Smollett said it’s not the first time he has wanted more lax security.
Jurors are set to return to the courtroom Tuesday morning at 9:15 a.m. to hear the remainder of prosecutors’ cross examination, as well as closing arguments from both sides. Judge James Linn said that he hopes the trial will finish by the end of day Tuesday, but that there’s a chance it will continue into the following day.