One sub-zero night on a deserted Chicago street, a gay black actor is attacked by two white supremacists who knock him to the ground, pour bleach over him and try to lynch him before he manages to fight them off.
Given its brutality, it’s little surprise that the attack on Jussie Smollett in January 2019 became a national scandal, summing up for many Americans just how much racial and homophobic hatred had been allowed to fester under the Trump administration.
Smollett, star of the hit TV series Empire and one of the first black, gay actors to play a leading character, related how one of his masked attackers had shouted, ‘This is MAGA country’ — a reference to former President Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan.
He said they also hurled racial and anti-gay abuse, and slipped a noose around his neck.
The actor suggested that he’d been singled out because of his public criticism of the Trump administration.
The actor, who starred with Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant, is accused of lying to police after orchestrating a fake hate-crime against himself. The two ‘attackers’, now giving evidence against him, aren’t a pair of redneck racists but two black Nigerian men who pumped iron with Smollett at the gym
Anti-gay, anti-black and pro-Trump — with horrifying echoes of the Ku Klux Klan and the nightmare era of lynchings — the hate-filled assault understandably provoked a storm of outrage among America’s liberal Left. White supremacists have long been its favourite bogeymen.
Hollywood actors, pop stars and Democrat politicians howled with anger on Twitter.
Vice President Kamala Harris, then a Californian senator, called it an ‘attempted modern-day lynching’, describing Smollett as ‘one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know’.
Now, nearly three years later, the furore has finally resulted in a prosecution, but it isn’t Smollett’s attackers who have gone on trial in Chicago this week — it’s Smollett.
To the horror of ‘progressive’ America, which never once treated his claims as anything but the truth, even as questions began to appear about his account, he has been accused of the most cynical deceit.
The actor, who starred with Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant, is accused of lying to police after orchestrating a fake hate-crime against himself. The two ‘attackers’, now giving evidence against him, aren’t a pair of redneck racists but two black Nigerian men who pumped iron with Smollett at the gym.
Smollett, 39, faces six counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly making false reports to police. He denies the charges.
Accused Smollett with Barack and Michelle Obama. To the horror of ‘progressive’ America, which never once treated his claims as anything but the truth, even as questions began to appear about his account, he has been accused of the most cynical deceit
Citing text messages and bank accounts, prosecutors say Smollett paid Abimbola Osundairo and his brother Olabinjo $3,500 (£2,636) to stage the attack in the belief it would generate so much sympathetic publicity it would enable him to negotiate a pay rise with the producers of Empire.
Smollett’s lawyer has said these payments were for training to prepare for an upcoming music video, and had no connection to the alleged plan to stage an attack.
But prosecutors insist there was a highly elaborate deception.
Abimbola testified on Wednesday that the actor had shown him a photo of a letter he’d been sent, with a drawing of a gun pointing at a tree from which a stick figure was hanging by a noose. It read: ‘Smollett, Jussie you will die.’
The actor told him he was upset that Cinespace Studios, where he was filming, wasn’t treating security issues and hate mail sufficiently seriously.
‘Then he proceeded to tell me he wanted me to beat him up,’ he told the court. Osundairo, an amateur boxer, admitted he was ‘confused’.
He went on: ‘Then he explained that he wanted me to fake beat him up. He told me that we would need another person to fake beat him up and he mentioned could my brother do it? I said yes.’
Osundairo said that he and Smollett had developed a brotherly bond since he met the actor while working as an extra in Empire. Osundairo would obtain illegal drugs for him, while Smollett advised him on his acting career, he told the court.
The actor also told him to use an anti-gay slur and shout ‘MAGA’ during the attack in which they were to slip the noose around his neck, before pouring bleach over him and running away, the court heard.
Two days before the incident, they even carried out a dress rehearsal as Smollett wanted the attack to be captured on nearby video cameras, said Osundairo.
The cameras didn’t record the attack but did capture the brothers walking down the street, bundled up against the freezing temperatures, footage which helped police identify them.
A detective testified that Smollett claimed at least one of the attackers had been white but, after learning the brothers had been arrested the following month, changed his story and described the man as ‘pale-skinned’.
Citing text messages and bank accounts, prosecutors say Smollett paid Abimbola Osundairo and his brother Olabinjo $3,500 (£2,636) to stage the attack in the belief it would generate so much sympathetic publicity it would enable him to negotiate a pay rise with the producers of Empire. Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo allegedly pictured in a cab
The officer said Smollett later said of the brothers: ‘It can’t be them, they’re as black as sin.’ The actor’s lawyer now claims that the Nigerian pair attacked Smollett because he is black and gay.
The lawyer has also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there was not a ‘shred’ of evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege. ‘Jussie Smollett is a real victim, he said.
Some who weren’t determined to see Smollett’s story as an example of the toxic racial divisions of Trump’s America have previously raised questions about his account.
Dave Chappelle, America’s most successful black stand-up comedian, was a rare dissenting voice in celebrity land. In a 2019 show on Netflix, he berated fellow African-Americans for staying silent when they knew, he said, the actor was ‘clearly lying’.
The attackers, claimed Smollett, had prefaced their assault by shouting, ‘Empire!’, apparently recognising him from the series. But Empire is a Fox series about a hip-hop music company with a gay star and a largely black cast. Hardly a must-watch for homophobic white supremacists, said Chappelle.
The comic also ridiculed Smollett’s claim that he’d gone out at 2am in minus 16c temperatures just to buy a sandwich from Subway and that his assailants had been wearing red MAGA caps in a city as virulently anti-Trump as Chicago.
He could have also mentioned a string of other suspicious details — why Smollett was still wearing the noose around his neck when police arrived some 40 minutes after the alleged attack, why he was initially reluctant to give police his mobile phone and why, moments before the assault, he decided to ring his manager, Brandon Moore, neatly providing the actor with a witness to his verbal exchange with the two thugs.
Dave Chappelle, America’s most successful black stand-up comedian, was a rare dissenting voice in celebrity land. In a 2019 show on Netflix, he berated fellow African-Americans for staying silent when they knew, he said, the actor was ‘clearly lying’
Then there was Smollett’s subsequent behaviour, in particular what looked like a shameless attempt to exploit his emergence into the limelight to plug his budding singing career.
Just a few days later, he played a packed concert in Los Angeles to promote his debut album.
In a further indication that something might not be quite right, it emerged that Smollett had hired sharp-elbowed crisis management specialists Sunshine Sachs to represent him.
Why, some wondered, did an assault victim need them?
Despite the growing controversy, Smollett continued to be feted, being nominated for an acting award from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and given a fawning two-part interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, the country’s most watched breakfast TV show.
Interviewer Robin Roberts oozed sympathy as the actor — giving what some sarcastically described as his greatest on-screen performance — became weepy when asked how he’d be ‘able to heal’ if they never found his attackers.
‘I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I fought back,’ Smollett said.
But he admitted that he was just as angry with the doubters who questioned his story as he was with his attackers.
They ‘don’t even want to see the truth,’ he blustered angrily. ‘It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black… the doubters would have supported me much more.’
Smollett was charged in February 2019, only for the charges to be dropped the following month after the reported intervention of Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, and others accused of improperly influencing the prosecution. Tchen has said she had no intention to influence the outcome of the case.
This prompted an outcry from Chicago’s mayor and police chief about a ‘whitewash of justice’ and some charges were reinstated.
The actor has countersued, alleging he was the victim of ‘mass public ridicule and harm’ and arguing he should not have to reimburse the city for the six-figure cost of the investigation.
‘It has been painful to watch the downfall of the actor Jussie Smollett,’ wrote one of his media supporters in the Left-wing New York Times. If he is found guilty, that will be the understatement of the year for his epically gullible cheerleaders.