Attack on ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett being investigated as hate crime

Jussie Smollet is pictured at PaleyFest LA 2016. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Empire” (2015–) star Jussie Smollett was attacked in Chicago by two unknown assailants early on Tuesday morning in an incident that police are investigating as a hate crime. According to the Chicago Police Department, Smollett was leaving a Subway sandwich shop around 2 a.m. in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood when he was approached by two individuals wearing ski masks allegedly attacked Smollett, shouting racist and homophobic slurs. 

Before fleeing the scene, police say the attackers also doused Smollett with an “unknown chemical substance” before placing a rope around Smollett’s neck. Smollett, who reportedly told police he was able to fight back at the attackers, was well enough to transport himself to the Northwestern Hospital, where authorities report he is in “good condition.” Initially, it was reported by several news outlets that the assailants had shouted “MAGA country” in reference to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Police initially denied this claim, but later confirmed it.

Smollett, who began his career as a child actor, rose to mainstream fame in 2015 when he was cast as Jamal Lyon in Fox’s “Empire.” The runaway hit drama depicts the musical empire of the Lyon family, who jockey with one another for control of Empire Entertainment, the record company that family patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) founded. 

Since its inception, the series has won numerous accolades, including a Golden Globe Award for female lead Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Cookie Lyon. Smollett’s character has also gained a great deal of attention as one of the few Black LGBTQ characters on network television. Smollett was in Chicago for filming “Empire” at the time of the attack.

After Tuesday’s attack, a wide cross section of Smollett’s collaborators, fans and other celebrities have expressed their support for the actor via social media and the press. “We are deeply saddened and outraged to learn that a member of our ‘Empire’ family, Jussie Smollett, was viciously attacked last night … the entire studio, network and production stands united in the face of any despicable act of violence and hate — and especially against one of our own,” a 20th Century Fox representative said in a statement to CNN.

“Wish what happened to my baby was just one big bad joke but it wasn’t and we all feel his pain right now. @jussiesmollett is pure love to the bone AND THAT IS WHY SO MANY ARE FEELING HIS PAIN BECAUSE IT IS OUR PAIN!!! I tell you one thing HATE WILL NOT WIN!!!! My baby is resilient and love still lives in him,” Smollett’s co-star Taraji P. Henson shared in a heartfelt post via Instagram.

“Empire” creator Lee Daniels, who also identifies as gay, shared an emotionally charged reaction to the incident in a video on Instagram.

“You didn’t deserve nor anybody deserves to have a noose put around your neck, to have bleach thrown on you, to be called ‘die f–got n–ga’ or whatever they said to you. You are better than that. We are better than that. America is better than that. It starts at home. It starts at home, yo. We have to love each other regardless of what sexual orientation we are because it shows we are united on a united front and no racist fuck can come in and do the things that they did to you. Hold your head up, Jussie. I’m with you. I’ll be there in a minute. It’s just another fucking day in America,” he said.

Daniels’ post reflected a wider frustration with the state of racial and sexual politics under the Trump administration, given that the attackers invoked Trump’s campaign slogan in their attack. As of Wednesday night, Chicago Police have released photos of two potential persons of interest in the case.