“You’re so beautiful. Give the world a show.” These lyrics from the single You’re so beautiful, featured in a memorable episode of Fox’s glossy, and guilty pleasure Empire, gave us just that. A show with a new pop culture reference. It wasn’t so much the song or lyrics that is of importance here, but rather the messenger. The black Dynasty-esque drama to this day, continues to spark new conversations about inclusion whether folks are ready for it or not. I’ll explain later.
When Lee Daniel’s semi-operatic hit show returns next fall, Oscar nominees Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard will graciously, and some may say unceremoniously, take their final bow. I do however, must confess my real reason for tuning into the show in the first place. As much as I loved Taraji’s epic, and now iconic one-liners as Cookie Lyons, and Terrence’s portrayal of the troubled and brooding Lucious, I was nestled in my favorite corner of the sofa Wednesday nights for one reason only. That would be for a glimpse into the world of Jamaal Lyons played by the talented, and now infamous Jussie Smollett.
You see to talk about Jussie, I have to start at the beginning. I’m one of those people who takes pride in harboring useless information. This includes my rich knowledge of television history including the good, bad, and short lived shows that for some reason, remain etched in my brain. One in particular was the little engine that could of sitcom called On Our Own.
The premise of the mid-nineties show centered around a group of siblings who lost their parents due to an unfortunate accident. The eldest, and only adult, took the reigns of raising his younger brothers and sisters and insert the shenanigans of a typical family show of the era.
The cast had a unique make up with the majority of the young actors being the actual Smollett siblings. A bubbly little Jussie helped to round out the bunch. This was my first introduction of the future star, and it would be years before I’d see him again- all grown up.
It’s 2012 and Patrick Ian Polk-writer, director, and creator of Logo’s Noah’s Arc, cast the now adult Jussie in his cult favorite film, The Skinny. Patrick, who is no stranger to bringing the vibrant lives of same gender loving men of color to the big and small screen, allowed us to see Jussie in a new light. By furthering the efforts of inclusion via his character portrayals, he introduced to a new generation another example of varied representation.
It would be an additional three years before we would see a more mature Jussie, and aesthetically speaking, we weren’t ready! The honest presentation of Jamaal Lyons by the actor however, would not only be a huge focal point of Empire, but also one of few times on a major network we would see black gay lives mattering on full display.
Many of us cheered when Jamal sang, danced, and realistically navigated through romantic relationships with men of color. Sadly, there were others who expressed their disapproval of “that gay stuff” being shoved down their throats yet again. The root of that sentiment is probably due to the countless shows throughout history, which showed black gay men in such vivid form that it humanized them. Such sorcery is responsible for the hypnotism of unsuspecting heterosexuals with the gay agenda. Oh wait, that narrative doesn’t exist thus making ridiculous claims of the sort not only inaccurate, but a testament that there is still work to do regarding visibility and acceptance.
Folks may not have been ready for Empire’s progressive programming, but they were talking, and engaged in a conversation that needed to be had. There is no denying that Empire moved the needle of the topic of inclusion ever so slightly. Despite the show’s efforts, Obama’s legalization of same sex marriage, and lighting the White House in rainbow colors during pride month, it still could not change some people’s minds as it relates to QPOC.
Outside of Hollywood, Jussie’s work on various social causes remained virtually invisible by those who were either not aware of, or didn’t care about his support of marginalized communities. He became a powerful ally to those identifying as lgbtq when we learned in an impromptu 2015 post interview on Ellen, that he was indeed one our own. His coming out via the trailblazer’s platform while being a star on one the biggest shows around, was monumental. I was proud, and said to myself – ok Jussie we see you, now show them who we are!
Season after season, Jussie’s star began to rise. Pepsi ads, an album receiving critical acclaim, and a very interactive Instagram presence complete with pranks on fellow cast mates were part of his promising career, and charm. Jussie branded himself as triple threat of talent including vocals capable of a silky falsetto, acting, and relatability. The ascension to superstardom however, would all come to a screeching halt one blustery cold morning in January 2019.
Not my Jussie! If it happened to him, it could happen to anyone of us. These thoughts ran through my mind as I learned that Jussie was the victim of an alleged hate crime. Multiple news outlets dominated our social media timelines with sparse details of the heinous attack. The assailants who were at large, attacked Jussie not only for his blackness, but also for identifying as queer.
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As the weeks passed, information regarding the attack remained limited. Eventually, leaks came from law enforcement at a rate that was beyond perplexing. Things didn’t look well for Jussie. He went from an alleged victim of a hate crime to an actual suspect in perpetrating a hoax. The indictment, which resulted in 16 charges against the performer, appeared excessive and damning. The court of public opinion was brash as it made Jussie the new poster boy for cancel culture. Conservatives, racists, and black homophobes now all had something in common- someone they could agree to vilify. I still wanted to have Jussie’s back and that I did!
When prosecutors sent a shockwave throughout the country with the announcement that the charges against the embattled Empire Star were to be dropped, outrage and the proverbial scratching of the heads ensued. Even the most staunch supporters of Jussie had a big WTF moment.
Now let’s get a few things out of the way. I want to be responsible, and forthcoming to say I’ve never been a victim of a hate crime. I’ve been called a faggot, and nigger way too many times than I care to count, but that doesn’t equate to countless victims who had the courage to come forward with stories of violence committed against them. Some of these victims have been family members, and dear friends. I do not in any way, take their accounts lightly and most importantly- I have always believed them! I also do not support anyone making up a story of being attacked, especially when so many that actually are, fear not being believed once reported.
The problem with Jussie, or should I say with his situation, is that almost from the beginning, he wasn’t taken seriously. Not even from some within his own black and brown lgbtq “community”. Members of the media and the Chicago police department, have since come forth to say some initial details related to Jussie’s account weren’t adding up. That doesn’t mean Jussie wasn’t indeed attacked. The one thing I’m not sure of, is what happened. Unfortunately that didn’t stop Twitter trolls from claiming to know details of the alleged assault as if they possess some psychic ability the rest of us do not. The truth is, none of us were there! The incident wasn’t captured on video, and that’s where we are.
We have a celebrity alleged victim turned suspect, and attackers who once apprehended, did not fit the description of what Jussie nor what CPD detailed. Who to believe? I do know that we cannot pretend that people of color aren’t accused of things they didn’t do when a controlled media spin has tried to convince the public otherwise. With that being said, why did so many black and brown people particularly in, and out of the same gender loving world, choose to automatically take the notorious CPD’s version of events over one of their own?
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The answer may lie in another story just as colorful as the one the media wanted us to digest. One that I don’t feel is being told enough. That is, some people were never rooting for Jussie- ever! He ruined a perfectly good black drama with his gayness. He became too big of a star to be considered part of the club of same gender loving men of color, particularly those clamoring for notoriety by any means necessary. Lastly, some people never cared about tuning in to watch Empire because in their minds, they couldn’t relate to vibrant and entertaining stories regarding people of color, let alone a black man who happened to be openly gay.
It is because of that dismissive narrative, that I supported Jussie. Even when things seemed off. Why do you ask? Well to answer that question I have to do so in two parts. The first is with my gut instinct. Despite people reducing Jussie’s star power to just being an unknown actor as if he weren’t on a hit show, with a successful album most recording artists would kill for, I don’t believe he would risk his career, and platform for a publicity stunt or a pay raise. I wouldn’t put that past some individuals within the D-list entertainment industry but Jussie’s track record of walking the straight and narrow publicly, doesn’t warrant that being a motive.
Secondly, If he did indeed fabricate the attack, does that make him unforgivable? Could he not be welcomed back into our good graces the way Rob Lowe, R Kelly (pre- lifetime documentary), Mel Gibson, Mike Tyson, and countless NFL players have? Yes I’m being intentional with mentioning celebrities and professional athletes, some of whom were actually caught on camera doing things far worse than lying. Is their bad or violent behavior less egregious because they’re bigger stars, or dare I say it straight? People tend to give folks a pass because in their eyes, their faves are too popular, too powerful, and too much of a reflection of themselves to be guilty of despicable behavior. Maybe to some, Jussie was never worthy of being believed due to not being a household name outside of the Empire viewing audience, or not being an acceptable version of manhood.
The curious case of Jussie Smollett has been a weird one for our culture to comprehend to say the least. Some of the media hype has died down, but there may be pending litigation as updates regarding his case still remain – a thing. Mainly from those still whining about being hoodwinked when they’re used to doing the hoodwinking.
Despite it all, I still stand by Jussie. In my eyes, he is powerful enough, popular enough, and representative of my blackness and queerness enough to be supported. Even if that support is in the form of forgiveness. In my heart he is telling the truth, and I make it a habit to support those I believe in. If definitive evidence presents itself and proves me wrong, let me decide if a lie is something vile enough to not move on from or not.
As the twenty-four hour news cycle moved on from the sensationalism of the alleged attack, I’ve since watched Ava Duvernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us. It affirmed what I’ve always known for certain which is some things aren’t always what they appear to be, even when there is an actual confession. I also live in a new normal where talk of assault and admitted sexual misconduct, is overlooked as long as it wins a campaign. Don’t tell me we can’t grant Jussie a second chance when so many heads have turned a blind eye to questionable behavior for things far worse than what Jussie was accused of.
I can write a laundry list of reasons to be #teamJussie. I also however, can condemn any wrong doing. That’s not my position though. With Empire wrapping its final season without Jussie (a decision by the powers that be), I will be taking a hard pass on the show altogether. I know what the character Jamaal Lyons means to me, and so many others like myself. The character’s absence on the show is not something that I can overlook. Jussie gave myself, and black gay men of varying generations a chance to see themselves in the mainstream outside of a reality show sidekick, or a punchline. You could not have Jamaal without Jussie. The impact and cultural significance of both can not be eradicated. His influence has already made a difference in the lives young people struggling with who they are, and grown men seeking the courage to finally live their truth.
Jussie affirmed me, a black gay man who at times, still struggles with a new out identity. He proved that it was ok to be OutFrront, living an authentic life. He continued the journey of media representation for me forged by my first gay role model Wilson Cruz. By the time I saw Jussie on Empire, I was out to those that mattered. I watched and discussed Jamaal’s love life with my sister, and my straight nephew. I was in awe of how much had changed in my life in order for that to happen. Jussie was a part of that change. He helped to normalize the experience of the same gender loving black man, and it wasn’t important to me whether middle America accepted it or not, but rather for men like myself to possess the agency to love ourselves unconditionally. For those reasons alone, Jussie Smollett still matters!