Promotional material for the CNN+ documentary Chicago vs. Jussie Smollett suggests the disgraced actor's name "has become synonymous with a hoax that underscored the larger cacophony of racism, homophobia, and political fissures in America." A fake crime with real victims. A lie that told the truth. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Comprised of interviews with key players and some never-before-seen footage from the night of the phony hate crime in January 2019, the documentary insists on framing a celebrity's act of deranged narcissism within the context of the broader movement for "criminal justice reform" and the public backlash against police misconduct in Chicago and the country at large. First we see footage of the 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Minutes later, we see Jussie Smollett explaining that he kept a (fake) noose around his neck until police arrived at his luxury high-rise because "I just wanted y'all to see it." It's all connected, you see.
The film opens with producers asking Jussie's brothers, Jojo and Jocqui Smollett, if they think Jussie was "punished, in some ways, for what looked like defiance." As a matter of fact, they do. Jojo suggests he was targeted "because of his activism ... against injustice" and for exercising his right "to criticize power." They are the only people who appear in the documentary to insist that Jussie is "an innocent person," although it's not entirely clear they actually believe it. "I think we've realized that the only way through this is to be unapologetic, and is to be bold, and is to not worry about playing the cards right and worrying about the consequences," says Jocqui, as if explaining the family's decision to keep denying the obvious.
The documentary revisits the frantic first days after the fake hate crime. The outpouring of support from celebrities and politicians. President Donald Trump condemning the "horrible" attack. Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson vowing to track down the perpetrators, determined not to squander his efforts to rebuild trust in the black community. Then we get to see it all unravel, and at precisely the moment that Smollett sits down for his tearful interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, playing the "angry" and "pissed off" victim, his cardigan adorned with gay pride and Black Live Matters pins. "I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I fought the f— back," he told Roberts.
Meanwhile, police footage shows Smollett's co-conspirators, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, being arrested upon returning from Nigeria and interrogated by Chicago police. We see them confess to their role in the hoax, in part as a result of Smollett's interview, as police track down surveillance footage of the brothers purchasing the "noose" and other props at a hardware store. Public sympathy evaporates as comedians go to town on Smollett for paying the Osundairo brothers with a check. Even shameless partisans like Stephen Colbert got in on the action.
As far as Jussie Smollett is concerned, the moral of the story seems relatively straightforward: "Don't commit fake hate crimes against yourself." The documentary insists on making it more complicated—"an opportunity" to have a national conversation about criminal justice reform and the meaning of justice. Because even though the crime part was fake, the hate part was real, and even if he did commit a phony hate crime, he doesn't deserve to be punished. "Well, I'm mad at Jussie, but again, what he represents is real," says Zach Stafford, former editor in chief of The Advocate. "Why am I having to choose a side in this when everyone feels guilty in some way?"
Shockingly enough, no one comes across as more unrepentantly guilty than Smollett, who defiantly told reporters, "I would not be my mother's son if I was capable of one drop of what I have been accused of," and insisted he would never "bring my family, our lives, or the movement, through a fire like this." Yet here we are. Even Kim Foxx, the Cook County state's attorney who initially dropped the charges against Smollett after texting with Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, seems to acknowledge that he is not an innocent victim, that people are angry at him for "not apologizing for what he did," and for the way he "thumbed his nose at this city." Nevertheless, she portrays her controversial decision to drop the charges, without first notifying police, as an example of "justice reform" meeting resistance from the powers that be.
It's easy to imagine an alternate universe in which Smollett is neither a convicted felon nor the laughingstock of the entertainment industry. In this universe, Smollett's stock is at an all-time high. He has just won several Grammy awards. Hollywood is still buzzing about his electrifying performance at former president Barack Obama's super-spreader birthday bash on Martha's Vineyard.
All he had to do was eat his Subway sandwich and carry on with his life.
In our actual universe, Obama was forced to settle for has-beens such as John Legend and Erykah Badu. Despite getting caught, his career in ruins, Smollett still claims to be a real victim of the fake hate crime he committed against himself. "I could have said that I was guilty a long time ago," he shouted, clenched fist raised in defiance, after being sentenced in March to 150 days in county jail.
Indeed, he could have.