Former “Empire” star Jussie Smollett has forever tarnished his reputation with his conviction on Thursday for lying to police about a racist, homophobic attack on a Chicago street nearly three years ago, industry insiders agree — though some are torn about whether and how soon the actor-singer might be able to stage a career comeback.
Evan Nierman, CEO of crisis PR firm Red Banyan and author of “Crisis Averted,” called Thursday’s guilty verdict on five felony counts of disorderly conduct “pretty much a death sentence” for Smollett’s future in Hollywood. “It’s hardly shocking, but nevertheless a sad outcome for him and the public as well, since his actions will ultimately undermine and call into question future, legitimate reports of racial injustice by true victims,” Nierman told TheWrap. “Smollett harmed the cause of racial equality while simultaneously faking a racist attack and totally destroying his own future.”
Shawn Edwards, film critic for Fox 4 News in Kansas City and executive producer of the “Critics Choice Celebration of Black Cinema & Television,” called Smollett’s conviction for faking a racist, and homophobic attack a “sad, tragic event” for a talented, young artist whose role on the hit TV series “Empire” had set him up for the entertainment stratosphere. (The Fox show was canceled shortly after the Smollett scandal erupted, and the actor did not return for the series’ pandemic-abbreviated sixth and final season.)
“Because of the position he put himself in, I think making a comeback will be extremely difficult,” Edwards said. “When you cry racism or manufacture racism, when racism actually happens, it cheapens (the claim). What he was trying to do was use racism and homophobia to his advantage. And that’s just not a good thing.”
Many noted how Smollett alienated his fan base as facts came to light that undermined his claims about the attack. In January 2019, the actor told Chicago police he was assaulted by two men wearing pro-Donald Trump apparel and yelling racist and homophobic slurs before leaving him with a noose around his neck. Later investigators purportedly showed that Smollett staged the attack with the help of brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, who appeared as extras on “Empire” and testified at trial that Smollett paid them $3,500 for their involvement.
“There is so much anger out there, and anger from people who supported him initially,” NPR TV critic Eric Deggans said. “Now they feel betrayed… he’s angered people on both sides of the political spectrum.” Right-wing critics have been quick to decry all the prominent media and political figures who initially rallied to Smollett’s defense.
Smollett, who plans to appeal the verdict, faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison. He will next appear in court in January for a pre-sentencing hearing, according to The Associated Press.
Smollett’s attorney Nenye Uche was not available for comment. Smollett’s PR representative, Pamela Sharp of Sharp & Associates, did not return a call seeking comment on Friday.
Many expect Smollett to receive probation as opposed to prison time — a sentence that might make it easier for the star to reclaim a career that began as a child actor in hits like 1992’s “The Mighty Ducks.”
“When he’s able to walk the street, he can change the narrative,” Eric Schiffer, an expert in reputation, brand and political strategy and chairman of ReputationManagementConsultants.com. “He can get cameras, he will begin to find ways to rebuild credibility and change the debilitating impact of the guilty verdict that will be catastrophic to most people.”
Susan Tellem, partner at Tellem Grody PR, said Smollet’s sheer popularity may portend a speedy career recovery. “In cases like this, the American public is very forgiving, especially if he is among their favorite celebrities,” Tellem told TheWrap. “Some on social media will be signing off from his posts, but I have a hunch many people will still follow, especially since his attorney said they will file an appeal.”
While Smollett must endure initial “career carnage” with no chance of any project that’s close to the mainstream, Schiffer said, “There could be a career on the political side, meaning as a commentator perhaps for some of these more streaming-driven political venues. Or potentially some project or producer wants the attention and is willing to give him a shot and may not have agreed with the verdict and/or the fact that those on the right are crushing him to smithereens.”
Prior to the trial, Smollett was shopping independent projects, including an indie film called “B-Boy Blues” that he directed and produced about two Black men who fall in love. The film, shot last fall and co-financed by Cleveland radio and TV station owner Tom Wilson, does not have a distribution deal.
But there are warning signs for any artist trying to return to the mainstream after a high-profile criminal case. “You kind of look at this in parallel to what happened to Nate Parker after his ordeal,” Edwards noted, referring to the actor-turned-filmmaker whose career imploded after rape accusations that dated back to his years as a student at Penn State University in 1999 resurfaced just ahead of the release of his well-reviewed 2016 drama “The Birth of a Nation.” (Parker was acquitted on charges from the now-deceased accuser.) The film, bought by Searchlight at Sundance for a then-record $17.5 million, was a box office disappointment.
In the current climate, many industry leaders — and fans — are less forgiving. “If this would have happened maybe five years ago, if this happened 10 years ago, he’s good,” Edwards said. “But it’s 2021, and social media has become this hot button for toxic elements in our society that I don’t think he can overcome. That’s where we’re at with this right now.”
Still, Hollywood’s memory can be short. And notoriety can often bleed into fame. Plus, many love a redemption story — so a powerful Black producer like Tyler Perry or Lee Daniels (who launched Smollett’s adult stardom by casting him as the estranged gay son of Terrence Howard’s hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon in “Empire”) could potentially offer Smollett a plum comeback role. But, Edwards said, that’s “maybe two, three, four, five years down the road.”
Anita Bennett and Brian Welk contributed to this report.
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