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What Jussie Smollett Means to ‘Empire’ and America

Reading the reported details of the attack on “Empire” star Jussie Smollett is chilling on a few distinct levels, all of them painful. The violence of the story is troubling on its own. Add to it Smollett’s identity as a gay black man, and details that his attackers were reported to have shouted racist and homophobic slurs, and the pro-Trump “MAGA” slogan, and you have a heart-grippingly clear example of why so many members of protected classes have come to feel unsafe during a moment in which hatred and rage have come to so thoroughly dominate our national discourse.

Adding to the sense of horror, though, is Smollett’s status as among America’s most prominent LGBTQ entertainers, and one whose weekly presence on the airwaves makes him a special kind of star. Since “Empire’s” debut in 2015, Smollett has been bringing to life the story of Jamal Lyon, a man whose identities — as gay and as black — doubly inform who he is, a person who’s both coming to terms with himself and struggling to find a way to exist with pride and confidence in a society that often presents real challenges. “Empire,” still a ratings force, and in its earliest days a phenomenon, reaches enough people to have a genuine culture-shifting effect. Smollett, telling a story of a man who lives at an intersection of identities and embraces every part of himself, is telling a story that’s too infrequently told, on the largest scale imaginable.

“Empire,” as a show, is built with a bit of something for everyone; it’s a crowd-pleasing soap with a kitchen-sink approach to plot. And yet Smollett’s performance never allows the issues his character raises to feel schematic. As a performer, he’s unusually charismatic and yet also evidently thoughtful in a way that manifests itself in a sort of low-key warmth. He stands up for his own dignity against, for instance, his father without cant or rage that would be merited — he simply continues to prove his own worthiness, to shine. He doesn’t steal scenes so much as illuminate them, quietly and without the showy brazenness that comes to mind when one first thinks of “Empire.” He’s the show’s human factor.

As a star of a popular series, Smollett allows his gifts to be put toward stories badly worth telling, from the show’s early days — when his character coped with, and pushed past, his father’s homophobic hatred — to just this season, when Smollett pushed for and starred in a storyline about Jamal dating a man with HIV, a plot meant to reduce stigma around the disease. “Empire,” it can be easy to forget, still drives major viewership and conversation; it’s just that that viewership and conversation, in large part, has fallen out of press coverage. It’s likely that Smollett’s black fans who are not gay and his gay fans who are not black have learned a great deal not merely from his real-life activism but also from, over five seasons, his ability to convey pride in all of himself, his refusal to segment his identity.

Details about the alleged attack on Smollett are still coming out. The actor has yet to speak publicly about the incident. But the violence directed at him seems intended as an attack on the work he’s done and on who he is — that same bold, intersectional, unashamed self that “Empire” lifts up and celebrates. That Smollett will have behind him, as he heals, a vast community of support from different corners of America is a tribute to the performer he is — ever unapologetically himself — and the ways in which he’s sought to show viewers exactly what the black gay experience is like. And that he’s been the victim of a hate crime, one that seems to have been committed by people who knew and deplored his work, is a sign of just how necessary it is that the entertainment industry make room for even more Jussie Smolletts — more queer artists of color given places in the mainstream so that they can speak clearly, passionately, and with unfakeable humanity about their own experiences, to fight hatred with excellence.

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