Empire creator 'beyond embarrassed' by his support for Jussie Smollett (but still thinks he might be innocent)

When the alleged attack on Jussie Smollett first occurred back in January, Lee Daniels, the co-creator of Empire, issued a statement of support on Instagram. From Variety:


“It’s taken me a minute to come to social media about this because, Jussie, you are my son,” he said in a video posted on Tuesday. “You didn’t deserve nor anybody deserves to have a noose put around your neck, to have bleach thrown on you, to be called ‘die f–got n–ga’ or whatever they said to you. You are better than that. We are better than that. America is better than that. It starts at home. It starts at home, yo. We have to love each other regardless of what sexual orientation we are because it shows we are united on a united front and no racist f— can come in and do the things that they did to you. Hold your head up, Jussie. I’m with you. I’ll be there in a minute. It’s just another f—ing day in America.”

Tuesday, Daniels told New York magazine’s Vulture that he was “beyond embarrassed” by his initial support for Smollett:

The reporting that’s emerged about the Jussie Smollett case suggests that he faked a racist, homophobic mugging in order to get paid more money on Empire. You initially publicly supported his story.The day of the supposed attack, Daniels posted an Instagram video, saying, “You didn’t deserve … to have a noose put around your neck, to have bleach thrown on you, to be called ‘die fucking nigger’ or whatever they said to you.” Are you embarrassed?

I’m beyond embarrassed. I think that when it happened, I had a flash of me running from bullies. I had a flash of my whole life, of my childhood, my youth, getting beaten.


But despite feeling embarrassed by it, Daniels is still not sure whether Smollett faked the attack.

It’s got to feel like a huge betrayal.
If it turned out that he did it, was guilty, and all of it’s accurate.

Wait, there’s really doubt in your mind that he didn’t make the whole thing up?
Of course, there’s some doubt. I’m telling you that because I love him so much. That’s the torture that I’m in right now, because it’s literally if it were to happen to your son and your child, how would you feel? You would feel, Please, God, please let there be that glimmer of hope that there is some truth in this story. That’s why it’s been so painful. It was a flood of pain.

Did you read the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of it?
I didn’t read any of it. I was too busy putting out fires.

Because to me, the Tribune’s reporting didn’t leave much in the way of doubt about its being anything other than a hoax. What would the scenario look like of him telling the truth?
We weren’t there. I can’t judge him. That’s only for the fucking lady or man with that black robe and God. I had to detach myself and stop calling him, because it was taking away the time I have for my kids, the time I have for my partner. It was affecting my spirit and other shows, everything.

You are a showman and a provocateur. A friend of mine remarked that she’d never heard of Smollett and all of a sudden he was the most famous guy in America.
What do you make of that? Think about it. If he didn’t do it, he’d be Martin Luther King right now. He’d be some sort of god.

You mean if he’d gotten away with it? I wondered if any part of you, as a showman, thought, Hats off to this guy for making himself a household name.
Yeah. Kudos. Yeah.


I don’t understand this reaction at all. I understand the initial support because people get duped all the time. And I get the subsequent embarrassment over that. That all makes sense under the circumstances. But why is Daniels acting as if he still doesn’t know what really happened? That makes no sense.

The most striking part of this is Daniels’ suggestion that, if the attack had been real, Smollett would be “Martin Luther King right now.” And that’s pretty clearly what Smollett was reaching for when he planned this hoax. He would become a celebrity that was also a social justice icon. But there’s a lot more to explore about this that Vulture didn’t seem interested in delving into.

For one thing, this is far from the first hate hoax perpetrated in the past couple of years. In February, reporter Andy Ngo made a list of fake hate crimes. Many of those “crimes” had caused an uproar when they were first reported. Some of them even got the attention of politicians like Hillary Clinton. The retractions of these stories rarely get the same coverage. In fact, that may be the one way in which the Smollett hoax is unusual: The fallout has been as big a story as the initial “crime.”

The fact that there are people willing to fake these crimes should tell us something about the underlying power dynamics. As Lee Daniels points out, Jussie Smollett would have been “some sort of god” if this had been true or also, I would add, if he’d gotten away with the lie. There is tremendous social power to be had in exploiting the racial victim narrative in our culture. Maybe we ought to think about that dynamic the next time a high profile hate crime makes the news. Why would anyone make something like that up? Because there’s tremendous potential for social benefit in doing so. If Lee Daniels would do an episode about that, maybe I’d watch.


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