Tonight is the Academy Awards, so perhaps it’s fitting that last week’s biggest story was an actor’s excellent performance — in an accused hoax.
Jussie Smollett from the TV show “Empire,” a name relatively few Americans knew last month and a great number know now (and isn’t that how they keep score in Hollywood?) drew the empathy of millions when he claimed to have been attacked in the wee hours of a cold, Chicago night in January. He said two men screamed racial and homophobic slurs at him, threw a noose around his neck, hollered, “This is MAGA country, N—!” and doused him with bleach.
It would have been a horrible hate crime, punishable by significant prison time.
Except, according to police, it never happened. Instead, police now accuse Smollett of faking the whole thing, hiring two Nigerian-American brothers to stage the attack, and trying to paint himself as a pitiable victim, in order to boost his acting profile and paycheck.
Shakespeare rightly said that all the world’s a stage. And everyone in this saga is playing a part. If Smollett indeed faked his own assault, he apparently thinks people should only see the world the way he wants them to see it.
He’s not alone in that.
There’s only one victim here
Smollett is African-American and openly gay. As soon as he reported his attack, members of the African American and LGBT communities jumped to condemn it. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris both called it “an attempted modern day lynching.” GLAAD issued a statement: “We condemn these despicable acts, as well as the racism and homophobia that drove them.”
But now that Smollett is being charged as the criminal, others are pouncing equally hard. President Trump supporters are demanding apologies. White critics are waving Smollett as proof that our racial divide is media-bloated.
Everyone is using their identity politics to frame this story for their own purposes, instead of pointing out the real rotten tooth in this national grimace.
Bold, bald-faced, bang-your-fists-and-swear-it’s-real lying.
The biggest victim here isn’t race, sexual preference or a political party.
The biggest victim is truth.
And the idea that you can’t believe anyone about anything.
A pathological … actor?
We already know criminals lie. We assume many politicians lie. And we realize actors are paid to pretend, yet we trust them off the screen as if completely forgetting that fact.
Smollett, if he staged all this, took his acting chops to a whole new level; he actually went on “Good Morning America” and lied through his teeth to Robin Roberts, question after question — and never appeared the slightest bit flustered.
He gave details. He recounted verbal exchanges. He said his attackers called him N— and F—. He made multiple references to the fact that he fought back.
“I will never be the man that this did not happen to,” he lamented.
When asked why he thought they had targeted him, he answered, “I come really, really hard against 45,” meaning he is a harsh critic of President Trump and this was politically motivated.
He’d told police that the perpetrators had white skin visible behind their ski masks, then told GMA, “If I had said it was a Muslim or a Mexican or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported a lot much more. A lot more. And that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now.”
Near the end he added, choking up, “I want them to see that I fought back. And I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I fought back … They ran off, I didn’t.”
All of these statements, which drew sympathy at the time, now, if you believe the police, are so brazenly hypocritical, your jaw drops.
Smollett is saddened by the possibility the perpetrators won’t be found (when he actually wouldn’t want them found). He wants the tape to show how he fought (to fool people about his bravery). He was targeted for his politics (so millions will side with him against Trump).
When Roberts asked about a threatening letter sent to the “Empire” set before the incident, Smollett said, “The return address said in big red caps ‘MAGA.’ Did I make that up, too?”
Well, yeah, he did, according to police, who claimed Smollett sent that letter to himself. Yet he actually said that sentence. “Did I make that up, too?”
And this is what he replied when Roberts asked what people need to hear. “I think what people need to hear is just the truth.”
If he really staged this event, that would go beyond acting. That’s approaching pathological.
Here’s the real issue
Now, it’s true, the case has not gone to court. And innocence should always be presumed — although Smollett, to prove innocence, would have to explain a good deal of evidence.
And yes, it’s true, this story undermines the growing rise in real hate crimes, which rarely get the spotlight this debacle has received.
But advocacy organizations, politicians and fellow actors who were loudly holding up Smollett to bolster their positions and are now saying, essentially, “Well, whatever he did, let’s not lose sight of the real issues …” have already lost sight of the real issue.
We can’t lie like that. We can’t abuse people’s trust like that. In a world where video can be edited, sound can be deleted, and we increasingly cannot believe our eyes or ears, the real issue, the greatest threat of all, is when we cannot believe each other.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.