"Empire," Fox's drama about a family-run hip-hop label, has always been defined by its bizarre plot twists. The show has featured a ghost who haunts her living husband, a child whose stepfather is also his grandfather and an amnesia-inducing car bomb. But the latest real-world twist involving a member of its cast is the strangest - and saddest - yet.
On January 29, Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon, the openly gay heir to the show's hip-hop record label throne, was allegedly attacked in a baroque hate crime. He told police that his attackers immediately identified him as a gay actor from "Empire," then proceeded to yell racial and homophobic slurs, shout "this is MAGA country," pour an unknown chemical on him and place a noose around his neck. The story has since become even more complicated: The Chicago police questioned two Nigerian brothers, one of whom said that he played a small part on "Empire," about their possible role in the attack. As of this writing, the department is seeking to interview Smollett again; he has hired a criminal defence attorney.
But even before these latest details emerged, when I first heard of the attack on Smollett, I had to pause. On "Empire," Jamal Lyon came out as gay in front of his homophobic, abusive father; took a bullet for that same father and overcame an addiction to pain pills. Was I reading last week's episode recap, or did this actually happen in my hometown of Chicago? Almost immediately, I had a terrible feeling that I was victim blaming, or worse, that I am so brainwashed that I no longer can hear cries of hurt and outrage from my own black community. It was a horrifying feeling that I am still trying to work through almost three weeks later.
I wanted to believe Smollett. I really did. I know that there is a deep, dark racist history in Chicago and, if proved true, this would be just one more point on the list. I wanted to believe him with every fiber of my being, most of all because the consequences if he were lying were almost too awful to contemplate.
And yet I struggled with Smollett's story.