In the stunning wake of the racist, homophobic assault against “Empire” star Jussie Smollett, which took place on January 29, the cast and crew of the hit Fox television series were thunderstruck by its suddenness and savagery. While on a food run after a long-delayed flight from New York, Smollett, 36, was ambushed on a wind-swept alley in Chicago’s Streeterville section by two assailants, who allegedly asked him, “are you that n***** Empire f****t?” before dousing him with bleach, wrapping a noose around his neck, and fracturing one of his ribs. As the assailants fled, Smollett recalled to police, they yelled, “this is [Trump slogan] MAGA country,” adding a harsh political undercurrent to their violence. Following the incident, a battered Smollett made his way to a local hospital, where he was treated and released. Lee Daniels, the show’s creator, issued an angry denunciation of the attack, saying it was “just another f*cking day in America”. That furious postscript highlighted a unique aspect of this frightening case: in art, as in life, Smollett’s “Empire” character is an out, gay artist.
“There are definite parallels here for Jussie,” Michael (Mikey Everything) Nelson, set coordinator (with 4 Star Casting) for the show, tells The Hollywood Digest. “Jamal’s life has elements of Jussie’s life in it.” As Jamal Lyons, Jussie portrays the out, gay son of a recording industry mogul, who strives to pursue his career in an often hostile, homophobic industry. Jamal faces the same struggles as a gay man of color, that Jussie does in the real world. “I think that storyline is a deliberate one,” Nelson observes, meant to emphasize the challenges of being Black and gay in today’s world. The recent attack crystallizes an early episode of “Empire” in which we see a flashback depicting family patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) lambasting his son’s homosexuality. In the series, Jamal eventually overcomes this traumatic experience, just as Jussie must now recover from his brutal ordeal. “When I heard about what happened, my stomach sank,” Nelson, a Chicago native who arranges and styles background actors on “Empire”, recalls. “I felt horrible. The “Empire” family was, of course, devastated.”
The parallels don’t end at the studio door for Nelson, who is himself among the first hip-hop artists to come out of the closet. As Mikey Everything, he has signed up with the venerable Trax Records label, for this month’s release of “Freak Somebody”, his hot new single. “This is also a path that I walk,” Nelson explains, “and I walk it as I really am”. Like Jussie and Jamal, he knows the road will have bumps, twists, and turns, but he is steadfast in his desire to see it through to stardom. “I can only go forward,” Nelson, 36, reflects. If there is perhaps a cautionary tale in the story of Jussie’s terrifying experience—and there are many warnings, from the need for better artist security, to the reality that we live in a dangerous political climate—There is, in both Jussie’s and Mikey’s perseverance, a sign of hope. Smollett is going ahead with a scheduled LA concert on February 2, despite his injuries, and Nelson is pressing ahead at both “Empire” and his own stage. That’s a hallmark of the strength the LGBTQ community has always found in the face of adversity, as Smollett himself noted in a public statement about the attack. “My body is strong, but my soul is stronger,” Smollett declared, “I’m OK.”
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