Stunned silence would be one way to describe how Hollywood is processing the arrest of Jussie Smollett after authorities say he made up a racist and homophobic attack.
The normally active Twitter feeds of leading artist-activists such as Ava DuVernay, Judd Apatow and Matthew Cherry were quiet in the hours after Smollett’s Thursday arrest in Chicago on a felony charge of filing a false police report.
Don Lemon — the outspoken CNN anchor who like Smollett is both gay and African-American — grasped for words on his newscast on Wednesday night. “It’s … terrible,” he managed to say.
There’s some cognitive dissonance going on: Smollett, that beautiful, sweet young man who comes from a warm, sprawling family with sibling actors, who started out in “The Mighty Ducks” in 1992 and rose to prominence on the edgy Fox show “Empire” — that Jussie is accused of mounting a racist, homophobic attack on himself?
Insiders with whom I’ve spoken were frustrated and saddened. One said that she had already had a difficult conversation with her children about the attack when it was first reported, and now wasn’t sure what to tell them.
The Chicago police chief said on Thursday that Smollett staged the attack because he wanted a pay raise — but that didn’t add up to observers in the business.
I will here pause to point out that we don’t know the truth at this point. Smollett has been charged and arrested, but maintains his innocence. Maybe he is. The evidence we’ve seen — like those two brothers buying a rope and other paraphernalia — doesn’t look good.
For weeks, Fox has been standing behind its star, vouching for his good character, hiring a PR specialist, denying rumors that he was going to be written out of the show. Within hours of his arrest, the studio pivoted from its previous blanket support for its star to say: “We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
In the last few days, defenders like DuVernay insisted on reserving judgment even as the police said they were moving toward the conclusion that Smollett had written himself a threatening letter, hired two brothers to throw a noose around his neck and fling bleach at him and claim a MAGA connection.
The sight of a visibly indignant Chicago police chief, decrying a waste of precious public resources on the case, does not help matters for Smollett.
Update: According to Chicago police officials, Jussie Smollett wrote a fake letter and paid for the staged attack because he was “dissatisfied with his salary.” https://t.co/MyPbjMeUKh
— Twitter Moments (@TwitterMoments) February 21, 2019
It’s an awkward moment for Hollywood at a time when this liberal industry is busy decrying the divisive politics of our time both on public platforms like Twitter and in the films and TV shows — including Smollett’s own show “Empire,” which was created by Lee Daniels, another artist who happens to be gay and African American.
And it’s distracting on the eve of an Oscars ceremony that finally has recognized a critical mass of diverse talent and movie themes in its top categories, from “Roma” to “Black Panther” to “Black KKKlansmen” to “Green Book.”
It’s a setback for those who want to champion equality and diversity, which is pretty much everyone in Hollywood, let’s be honest. It hands a potent weapon to critics of “Hollywood liberals” that will be wielded for years.
Like the Tawana Brawley case of the 1980s which left a lasting stain on activists like Al Sharpton, it will haunt Smollett and those who chose to ardently defend him.
I will stipulate again that I don’t know what happened in this case. But it’s an important reminder that no one has a monopoly on idiocy, cynicism and egoism. And that we should pay close attention before we judge.