Is Jamal Lyon? The Curious Case of Jussie Smollett


Written by Brandon C. Kesselly (@bckesso)

Update: On Tuesday, March 26, 2019, all 16 charges against Empire actor Jussie Smollett were dropped by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.

“ After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett’s volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case,” State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said in a statement.

The news apparently came as a surprise to everyone — including the actor’s team — as the development was announced in an emergency hearing. Smollett previously pleaded “not guilty” to all 16 counts of disorderly conduct on March 14.

While I’m still unclear on what fully happened, it should be noted that Foxx had previously asked the case to be turned over to the FBI, according to the Chicago Tribune. These communications apparently began as early as February 1, as Smollett’s relatives had concerns about the case. Foxx was contacted by Tina Tchen, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff and a friend of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s wife.

I’ll be updating this piece as more information comes in.

On January 29, 2019, news broke that Jussie Smollett, a star on Fox’s Empire, was hospitalized after being attacked in a possible hate crime in Chicago. According to Smollett’s police report, the attackers called him racist and homophobic slurs because he, like his Empire character, is black and openly gay. They also allegedly declared, “This is MAGA country!” to signal support for President Donald Trump. Democratic Senators (and presidential candidates) Cory Booker and Kamala Harris swiftly pledged their support. Harris even condemned the attack as an “attempted modern day lynching”.

As the weeks went on, Smollett slowly began speaking to the public (he called himself “the gay Tupac”), while the Chicago Police Department (CPD) slowly began to discover that they could not find corroborating evidence for his version of events. Furthermore, it was beginning to look like he had staged his own attack, and potentially even paid someone to do it. Last week, with the CPD mounting more evidence against him, the actor turned himself in.

Due to the emotional roller coaster of his case, Smollett has been a study in sensational media, confirmation bias, and America’s obsession with both the hero syndrome and martyr complex. As the narrative shifted, liberal and conservative pundits have continued a never-ending debate over whether to give victims the benefit of the doubt, or to withhold “hot takes” until all the facts are in. There’s also the question of the CPD’s credibility. All of these are important questions to consider given the lingering specters of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald.

In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till traveled from Chicago, Illinois, to visit family in Sumner, Mississippi. While in the area, he entered a store and ran into 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. Three days later, Till was kidnapped by her husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.M. Milam. The two men not only murdered young Till — they disfigured his face entirely.

Why, you ask? Simple: Carolyn said the boy had sexually harassed and verbally assaulted her. She said he had used an “unprintable” word, claimed Till had done something “with white women before”, and testified how rough he had been with her. “I was just scared to death,” she said during her husband and brother-in-law’s trial.

Till’s death — and open casket funeral — became a rallying point in the Civil Rights Movement. Bryant and Milam were both acquitted, yet they confessed to the crimes to both police and, later, in a Look Magazine article. Till was one of many who had become martyrs of civil rights abuses, with activists organizing to fight for justice to ensure his murder was never repeated.

Despite all of the good that came from this horrendous event, there was one thing wrong in all of it: Carolyn Bryant was lying.

In 2007, she confessed to Timothy Tyson, an author and Duke University researcher, telling him that her testimony regarding Till’s sexual advances was “not true”. She could not remember what happened that day, either. While the confession made headlines in 2017, efforts to reopen the Till case have been made since at least 2004. It was once again re-opened last year in light of this.

In October 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Van Dyke said McDonald, who was armed with a knife, posed a threat to his person. Seven officers corroborated his story in their reports, and the CPD settled with the family in April 2015. However, in November 2015, the dash cam footage of the shooting was released, contradicting Van Dyke’s story and sparking public outrage.

By June 2016, hundreds of dash cam videos had been released and the Justice Department had opened a civil rights investigation into the CPD. The videos showcased an alarming trend of police brutality towards the men, women, and children of Cook County. The Justice Department would eventually conclude that the CPD had routinely violated the Fourth Amendment for years.

These two cases put the Jussie Smollett narrative into perspective. While he maintains his innocence as of this writing, CPD continue to declare they have more evidence of his deception. It has also surfaced that Smollett has previously been convicted for a false police report. However, the impetus is still on CPD to prove his guilt in a court of law, rather than public opinion.

Personally, I’m simultaneously confused and disappointed. Back when I used to watch Empire, Smollett’s Jamal Lyon was my favorite character. Jamal’s struggle for his father’s love was compelling, especially given Smollett’s extraordinary chemistry with Terrence Howard. Learning Smollett himself was gay added a layer of sincerity to his character. He was also the most musically gifted of Lucious Lyon’s (Howard) children — and his musical performances displayed a dynamic range and crossover ability.

When I heard the news, I, too, was quick to defend him despite how incredible the story sounded. After Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville, and the fact that hate crimes have been on the rise in recent years, I allowed my bias and compassion to cloud my judgment. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and I feel like an idiot for doing it, given everything that’s transpired.

At the same time, I also still don’t know if Smollett’s lying or not. It sounds weird that someone would stage a hate crime for a salary increase on a show that averaged roughly 13 million viewers for four seasons. In fact, he was making $125,000 per episode, was working on new music projects, and reportedly said nothing to the staff about payment frustrations. Crazier things have happened, but he’s the worst kind of asshole if the charges are true.

False victimhood is a slap in the face to actual hate crime victims, as well as those of sexual assault. It has the potential to taint allegations, forcing real victims to remain silent despite how rare these hoaxes are. It’s also an incredible waste of time and resources — especially in an area like the Windy City, whose crime rates still make headlines.

All we can do for now is wait and see, and pray that Chicago solves the rest of its crimes with the same swiftness as this alleged attack turned alleged hoax.

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