Now what, Jussie Smollett?
In the space of two months, the “Empire” star, 36, has gone from crime victim to indicted crime suspect and back to victim again, now claiming total exoneration after Chicago prosecutors abandoned their case against him Tuesday. Meanwhile, Chicago police and Mayor Rahm Emanuel continued to shout angrily about his alleged guilt.
Cook County prosecutors are not explaining why they did what they did, so the public is still in the dark about what happened and why. Officially, Smollett’s record is expunged but there’s already a history of police leaks in the case, so the public schadenfreude surrounding him is likely to linger. And the FBI is still investigating one aspect of the case.
So where does the Smollett go from here? Back to “Empire”? Quietly into the night? We explore some possibilities:
First things first: ‘Empire’ is over, until the fall.
There will be no resolution for “Empire” fans in the near future. The Fox drama wrapped Season 5 in mid-March after writing Smollett out of the final two episodes. With production dark and the show on hiatus until the fall, courtroom drama will stay off the “Empire” set.
But writers will reconvene in June to plot out Season 6 storylines. Will they include Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, the gay son of Cookie and Lucius? Yes, since he has a standard six-year contract. If Fox still decides to cut him even after the charges were dropped, it could cost them.
“The morals clauses that are in contracts generally apply if someone is convicted of something,” says TV historian Tim Brooks. “Not if they’re accused and the charges are dropped. So he could get a lot of money out of them if they really want to get rid of him.”
A cheaper option, should Fox decide to downplay his role in the series, is to lessen his screen time.
“The writers have so much leeway here. They can simply make somebody’s role smaller,” says Brooks, noting that even if Smollett is guaranteed a certain number of episodes a season, “you might be in a crowd scene in the background if they want to keep you out of sight. So they really have the upper hand in this.”
What about his image?
Summer break means more time for Smollett to invest in a charm offensive. Though the charges were dropped, the actor was indicted on 16 counts of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report about being the victim of a hate-crime attack.
And with police and politicians still protesting, those allegations will continue to cloud his reputation, says Ronn Torossian, a crisis manager who has represented clients such as Sean Combs, Snoop Dogg and Nick Cannon.
Torossian thinks Smollett’s career is over, at least from a public-relations perspective. No brand will want to be affiliated with him, no show or program will want him, he maintains.
“While his record will be wiped clean, his reputation will not,” Torossian says. “He is likely to be remembered solely for this incident, and I think his success in Hollywood is done. His reputation will never be fully restored in the public eye.”
He’s lucky that the charges were dropped but the messy outcome is a “career-halting problem which he has created,” Torossian added.
“Generally in the world of crisis, there’s two courts to worry about, the court of law and the court of public opinion. Despite his ‘success’ in the court of law, the court of public opinion decided weeks ago that they will not support him. In today’s climate, I don’t believe the public will forgive him for this.”
But maybe there’s still hope.
Howard Bragman, veteran public-relations master and founder of LaBrea.media, says the Smollett case is a true one-off in Hollywood scandals.
“It’s a bizarre finish to what’s been a bizarre case,” Bragman says. “This one is an outlier, it doesn’t fit any category. It’s the first scandal we’ve seen of this sort and it’s probably the last. But that makes it hard to read the tea leaves based on this.”
Still, he is optimistic about Smollett’s chances of emerging from the maelstrom relatively unscathed.
“There’s always going to be a little question over him but at the same time, the one thing that’s undeniable about this kid is his talent, acting and musically,” Bragman says. “That matters in Hollywood. And time is a great healer.”
It also helps that Smollett was consistent in sticking to his story that he was attacked by two men who shouted homophobic and racist abuse, threw bleach on him, beat him and dangled a noose around his neck while shouting President Trump’s campaign slogan.
‘It’s kind of like a big sporting event played to a tie.’
“We live in this deeply polarized world. If you want to be a Smollett supporter and say I knew he would be vindicated, well now you can say, ‘see, he’s vindicated,’ ” Bragman says. “If you say it smelled funny from the start, you can believe that, too. It’s kind of like a big sporting event played to a tie. And nobody comes out really happy.”
Eden Gillott, another leading crisis and reputation manager, agrees that attitudes toward Smollett depend on which camp you were already in.
“He’s permanently damaged in the eyes of his skeptics,” Gillott says. “For those who were always in his corner, this is their ‘I told you so!’ moment. … But he cannot expect for things to go back to normal. He’s going to have to start a full-on PR campaign to clear his name in the eyes of people who weren’t divided either way.”
Certain scandals are career-defining and career-ruining, Bragman says: “Violent crime, minors, racism – those are almost impossible to come back from.”
For Smollett, it will depend on how many more years “Empire” is on TV. “He should be happy if it goes two or three more years, to give people a longer chance to see him,” Bragman says. “And it allows time for (producers): If it’s working they will keep him and if it isn’t working, then they have a reason to drop him.”
The story could still change
The FBI is still investigating a threatening letter that Smollett says was sent to him a few weeks before the attack. Chicago police believe Smollett sent himself the letter. So far, the FBI will not comment on the status of their probe or the news that state prosecutors dropped the charges against Smollett.
So is it really over? Outraged police leaders and Mayor Emanuel angrily suggested at a press conference Tuesday that it shouldn’t be. “There’s real contention” lingering over the case, says Brooks.
Also, Smollett continues to insist he was the victim of a hate crime. So will authorities turn their attention to the two brothers, Ola and Abel Osundairo, who were the main witnesses against him? The brothers were initially detained as suspects, then became witnesses after they told police Smollett paid for an attack as a means to bump up his profile and his TV salary.
One of Smollett’s attorneys, Patricia Brown Holmes, pointedly noted to reporters Tuesday that the brothers have already admitted they did attack Smollett, but she declined to point the police in their direction. She said Smollett just wants the case over “so he doesn’t have to continue to fight and continue with the disruption to his career.”
Brooks says some scandals can blow over quickly, replaced by something else taking over the news cycle in a day or two. “The faster he gets it off the front page, the better for him, and the better for Fox for that matter,” Brooks says.
But Cookie’s in his corner
Meanwhile, the future of “Empire” is unclear. The show, which burst on the scene as a cultural sensation in 2015, has declined in ratings in recent years, though it’s still Fox’s No. 2 drama among young-adult viewers.
If contracts are renewed for more seasons, will Smollett be welcome in the Lyon den? He has mama bear Cookie Lyon in his corner. “I’m happy that the truth has finally been set free, because I knew it all along,” Taraji P. Henson told USA TODAY on Tuesday. “We’re all happy for him, and thank God the truth prevailed.”
She added that she knows Smollett well, and “the type of activism this young man does in his community, I know that he’s a giver – he’s not an attention-seeker.
“When I know someone, there’s nothing you can say to make me flip on them, and that’s what we miss in this world,” she says. “We need people that stand by us. Whatever happened to that? Why are we so easy to believe strangers over people we know?”
Contributing: Patrick Ryan