Almost immediately after news broke at the end of last month that two men had attacked Jussie Smollett, an actor on Empire, controversy over how to characterize the incident has practically been as rampant as the outrage. That sense of outrage was only fanned by descriptions of the attack—which the Chicago Police Department initially said it investigating as a “possible hate crime”—as “racially charged,” rather than simply racist. (In addition to pouring bleach on his face, the attackers, who Smollett said yelled racial and homophobic slurs, as well as the phrase “MAGA country,” also tied a rope around his neck, which led some to describe the attack as “an attempted modern-day lynching.”)
It wasn’t until Thursday, though, that reports broke which seemed to give credence to another characterization of the attack: that it was a hoax. Chicago’s CBS and ABC affiliates both shared reports alleging that Smollett had worked with his two attackers—one of whom, the reports alleged, was also an actor on Empire—to stage the incident, motivated by another allegation that Smollett was being written off of the show.
But that, according to the show‘s co-creator, Danny Strong, was never the case: “There is 0% truth that @JussieSmollett was going to be written off of Empire. This rumor is totally false,” he tweeted on Thursday. “He is the third lead and one of the most beloved characters on the show. Writing him off the show has NEVER even been discussed.”
Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television, which produces the show, also tweeted and shared a statement with USA Today which read, “The idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written off of Empire is patently ridiculous. He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him.”
Not all of those who spoke out against the reports stuck to simply Empire‘s plot points. While the Chicago Police Department’s chief communications officer, Anthony Guglielmi, originally tweeted a reminder that because investigators continue to safeguard details of the incident, “media reports of investigative details cannot be confirmed at this time.” A few hours later, though, he got a bit more specific: “Media reports anout the Empire incident being a hoax are unconfirmed by case detectives,” he tweeted.
While Guglielmi told the New York Times later that night that one of the men being questioned in connection with the attack—though who is not currently being considered a suspect—did appear on Empire, he also said that the “supposed CPD sources” cited by the ABC affiliate which was among the first to share the reports “are uninformed and inaccurate.” He also added that the CPD’s superintendent, Eddie Johnson, had since reached out to the station to “state on the record that we have no evidence to support their reporting.”
Each tweet was met with a mixed response; many replies expressed their doubts and frustration with the continued lack of clarity surrounding the incident via memes (“Sure, Jan” and Oprah asking, “So what is the truth?”). Even before the reports broke, so many have conspired that Smollett is lying about the attack that he addressed and expressed his frustrations with those allegations himself during his appearance on Good Morning America on Thursday. (Though some remained unconvinced, pointing to the fact that the phone records which Smollett submitted to the police were, in the words of Chicago law enforcement, “limited and heavily redacted.”)
But why is it so hard to believe that such an attack could have taken place? In 2016, the FBI found that LGBT individuals are the most likely targets of hate crimes in America—and that black individuals are the fourth most likely, as much of the outrage surrounding descriptions of the attack as “racially charged” has pointed out. The overwhelming number of those individuals, of course, are not celebrities, and therefore names that you’ll likely never come across the news—particularly now that the attack against Smollett has proven that even a known name faces little chance of being believed.
Smollett, however, is standing his ground; less than a week after the attack, he encouraged the audience gathered at his performance in Los Angeles to “be as black, be as brown, be as gay as the fuck you want to be.”