Life sometimes imitates art, often bad art. Actors live and work in a make-believe world, and when they step outside that world they’re naturally confused about which world they’re in.
Jussie Smollett was an obscure actor in a troubled Fox television series called “Empire.” Ratings are down, and sinking, and the Fox network was braced for more bad news when the new season returns next month. What “Empire” needed was publicity to juice expectations. Why not some help from Jussie?
But now Jussie is in trouble with the law because of the tale he told to the cops, that two white guys in bright-red MAGA hats beat him up outside a sandwich shop in a rough neighborhood in Chicago, poured bleach on him, looped a noose around his neck, shouted racist and homophobic insults, and left him in the street to die. (Or to await his close-up.) But then the plot thickened and took an interesting turn.
The tale was real-life fiction, believable only by fans of the improbable, the imprecise and the unlikely, of whom there is never a scarcity. Jussie Smollett, it now seems likely, made it up. Actors are rarely recruited for their imaginations — just read the words somebody wrote for you. But premise matters. Credibility matters.
One reader trolling through an Internet account of the story wonders who would believe that two white guys in MAGA hats would go wandering through a rough black neighborhood in Chicago at 2 o’clock in the morning in freezing weather, carrying a bottle of bleach and a noose just in case they came upon a gay black actor cruising for a bruising.
The script hit all the buttons, a Trump collusion (the MAGA hat), the bleach (a terroristic touch) the noose (every Ku Klux Klansman carries one in his briefcase), and ethnic and LGBTQ insults. This would be a hate crime for the ages.
Prominent Democrats were standing by, waiting for their cues. Nancy Pelosi, working the angles between her famous brain freezes, saw the “racist, homophobic attack on Jussie as “an affront to our humanity, and no one should be attacked for who they are or whom they love.” Kamala Harris, eager to push the race button before anyone else could, called it “a modern-day lynching.” Cory Booker, his humanity grievously affronted, piped up his agreement. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the queen of the Democratic carnival, was at a loss for something original to say, and repeated that it was “a racist and homophobic attack.”
Later Mr. Smollett was not sure the two white guys were actually white, but he was sure they were guys. Mr. Smollett, having made a quick recovery from his broken bones, was seen by witnesses walking to his home after the beating with his Subway sandwich still in hand.
This was unfair. A guy’s gotta eat, and a Subway ruins a five-dollar bill, and broken bones, a bloody nose, a black eye and a few bruises shouldn’t deprive a man of his midnight snack. A television script, like a movie script, is a work in progress, and needed revisions were soon on the way.
Nitpickers were put in their place. Mr. Smollett didn’t report the beating first to police, but he had a good reason for calling an Internet gossip site first. “We live in a society where as a gay man you are considered somehow to be weak, and I am not weak. I am not weak. And we as a people are not weak.” How better to prove it than getting up from the street, dusting yourself off, checking yourself for anything life-threatening, and then, and only then, calling a famous gossip. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Besides, once he had reported the beating to the gossip site, a lawyer and a public-relations flack, he did call the cops, like any citizen would, and began revising his story. His ribs were not actually broken, for which we are all grateful, and contrary to his confused early account, he never really went to a hospital.
Then it was time to push a few more buttons. “The vast majority of people have been supportive and loving and understanding,” he told a kind and supportive Robin Roberts of ABC News, but some meanies out there are not. Everybody would believe him, he said, “if I had said it was a Muslim or a Mexican or someone black. I feel like the doubters would have supported me a lot much more. A lot more, and that says a lot about the place that we are in our country.”
His story continues to unravel, like a badly written television crime drama. Inquiring minds want to know how he fought off his attackers without losing his grip on that sandwich. Revising a script in mid-production is not easy. A Midsomer murder this is not.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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