Frequently I find myself yearning for a pre-COVID time — let’s say 2019. We knew nothing of the global pandemic that would upend our lives, there was a glint of hope that Bernie Sanders might be president, and we had just learned that Empire actor Jussie Smollett allegedly paid to get hate crimed by two brothers for the publicity. It was a simpler time.
We cannot turn back the clock, but we can always look to the future, meaning the trial against Smollett for which jury selection begins today. The actor is being tried on six counts of disorderly conduct for lying to the police. But how did we get here? Have you forgotten how funny and dumb this whole situation was? Let me take you back to a better time, when a B-list actor captured the national consciousness with a harebrained scheme (allegedly).
On January 29, 2019, Smollett flew into Chicago from New York, landing at around 12:30 a.m. after a four-hour delay. He returned to his home at 1:30 a.m., hungry after the long trip. So far so good. Then, he left to go to a Subway, where he picked up a tuna salad sandwich and a salad, an objectively hilarious Subway order and the first red flag in this whole saga.
While walking back to his residence, Smollett claimed he was attacked by two white men who hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him, put a noose around his neck, and poured a mysterious chemical liquid on him. He then returned to his apartment still wearing the noose, and his manager called the cops 40 minutes after the attack.
It was later revealed that a week prior to the attack, a letter had been sent to Smollett at the Chicago set of Empire with “MAGA” as the return address. The envelope contained a white powder (later determined to be Tylenol) and a letter that literally used cut-out letters to say “You will die black fag.” Laying it on a little thick, but okay.
Obviously, everyone believed Smollett’s version of events when they were first reported. Who would be so crass as to question a celebrity who claims they were the victim of a vicious hate crime? Ariana Grande, Zendaya, Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes, and more came to the support of Smollett. Then Senator Kamala Harris called the event a “modern day lynching.” In a truly shocking twist, none of them have deleted those tweets.
On February 14th, Smollett went on Good Morning America to give his side of the story and maintain that he hadn’t lied about the attack. “You do such a disservice when you lie about things like this,” the actor told Robin Roberts. "I’ve heard that it was a date gone bad, which I so resent that narrative,” he said. “I’m not gonna go out and get a tuna sandwich and a salad to meet somebody. That’s ridiculous. And it’s offensive.” I think depending on how well you know the person you might stop and get a sandwich first, but that’s just one gal’s opinion.
By that point, the police and the general public were suspicious of Smollett. Two brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, who had been extras on Empire and gym buddies with Smollett had been taken into custody on suspicion of battery, but were released without being charged. It was then revealed that they had been paid $3,500 by Smollett to carry out the attack, with an additional $500 being promised to them afterwards.
A fun side fact about this case is that the Osundairo brothers were caught on security footage buying ski masks, gloves, and a red baseball cap. According to a security guard at the store, they asked for a MAGA hat, but the store didn’t sell them, so they just went with plain red. Another fun fact was that they were Black and not white — an especially unfortunate example of the pitfalls of race-blind casting. Moving on.
At this point, Smollett was in deep shit. The producers of Empire announced that he would not be appearing in the final episodes of the show’s season, and in March 2019 he was indicted on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct. However, in what felt like a deus ex machina moment for Smollett, all of those charges were somewhat mysteriously dropped on March 26th.
“After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett's volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case,” the state’s attorney’s office said in a statement.
But then, in June 2019, a Cook County circuit judge approved a special prosecutor to independently investigate the case. After eight months, a grand jury indicted Smollett again, this time on only six counts of disorderly conduct. So now we’re here, with a trial finally underway almost three years after the initial incident.
What Else You Should Know
Smollett maintains his innocence and his attorney entered a not guilty plea for his new charges back in February 2020. Just a week ago, the actor also tried to creep back into the public eye at the premiere of his directorial debut B-Boy Blues. The film still needs a distributor.
In the words of Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA, “Do not commit crimes with checks.”