I rarely watch television. My demanding job is equivalent to a reality television show, so most evening broadcasts hardly entertain me. But there was a time on Bible Study Wednesdays that I did run home to watch a popular show that caught the nation’s imagination. It starred a new, unfamiliar actor whose character I found deeply engaging.
And now I have been asked to write an op-ed on Jussie Smollett, the famed, openly gay, Black childhood-to-adult actor who became a lead character on the hit television show “Empire,” the five-year TV program developed by Black, gay director Lee Daniels.
Smollett and Lee are well-known and get a lot of public attention and recognition from other people — celebrities I recognize often, who are in the film and television business. Although I am mostly unfamiliar with Smollet’s career, his public attraction alongside Fox network programming caught my attention. High five for the out, LGBTQ+ person … particularly the fact that they are Black!
In my lifetime, the mid and late 20th century has given rise and encouragement to out members of the creative class. I have witnessed heroes showcase freedom like Tony Washington, the lead singer of the Motown Records singing group Dynamic Superiors.
The Dynamic Superiors, an all-Black male band, helped break a barrier for openly gay performers, giving the group a multi-year deal in the 1970s. Washington made music he loved and performed as himself, challenging the status quo when he performed in traditionally feminine clothing.
Another artist from the ‘80s, Michelle Ndegeocello, a funk, soul and jazz artist, rocked the nation during the Neo-soul period within Black music. As an out, Bi person, she became a hero of expression. Here, we applaud champions who challenge and make us think. Unfortunately, we cannot applaud poor decision-making.
Last month, Smollett was convicted of five felony counts of disorderly conduct for making false police reports after he staged a fake hate crime against himself in Chicago. After much public press and scrutiny, it was found that Smollett reported to the Chicago Police Department a fake hate crime that he had staged earlier that morning to make himself appear the victim of an anti-gay, racist assault because he was unhappy with his salary on “Empire.” In January 2019, Smollett had planned the event with two Nigerian-American brothers who had worked with Smollett as extras on the set of the television drama.
I have a job that assists victims of crime, so I take harm against victims seriously. But, Smollett’s incident was fabricated — a staged hoax meant for fame.
Healing and Support Services is a domestic violence and sexual assault prevention program. Since 2017, LGBT Detroit has operated this program to provide free counseling and crisis intervention for survivors of intimate partnership abuse, sexual violence, stalking, harassment, trafficking and hate crimes. This is a confidential service open to LGBT+ adults or their loved ones who have experienced violent crime.
What makes Smollett’s case even worse is its negative cultural and racial impact. Bias against African American persons are the highest reported incidents of hate crimes, according to the FBI. And reported violence of homosexuals (male) are listed as the fourth highest category. Hate crime violence is a serious accusation, to say the least.
I celebrate celebrities. I certainly am a fan of most things pop culture … film, TV and song. I also uplift and affirm members of the LGBTQ+ entertainment industry for daring to be open and vulnerable. Even other types of celebrities — infamous and otherwise — receive my attention. I ask those whose profession it is to entertain just be mindful. It is a job … a job. Primarily that. A career that generates income. Something that most Americans do. I cannot begin to fathom why the need to use historically harmful reminders of the far and near past to become the next “TMZ” headline was the winner’s choice.
Simply put: I’m not mad … I’m disappointed in Jussie Smollett.
Smollett, a hero to some, did a terrible thing. By conjuring up American terrorism, he forces us to think about the cultural ramifications of his actions. He is convicted and certainly will be remembered for this atrocious act; he will pay a price and should expect forgiveness. Let others who seek the limelight recall from him where bad acting can lead.