Jussie Smollett is a long way from rehabilitation. In fact, he has a long way to go before he reaches full dehabilitation. That’s a real word, and I’m willing to hire two Nigerian bodybuilders to prove it while wearing MAGA hats. Dehabilitation is the process of becoming estranged from family, friends and society, usually because of something disgusting like leprosy, or filing false reports of racist and homophobic assault to the police.
Smollett is now in dehab, but his apology to the cast of Empire suggests that he thinks he’s moving into rehab. This means he hasn’t yet understood the mess he’s in. This is America. There can only be rehab after dehab. The sinner cannot be redeemed until he has been fully degraded by public confession, in this case quite possibly in court with police officers who most definitely did not buy their outfits at a hardware store. Only then can the penitent shuffle towards rehab via the outer circles of daytime TV hell.
Dehab it is, at least for now. Nancy Pelosi and Rosie O’Donnell have deleted their tweets. Ellen Page and Rob Reiner are pretending that nothing happened, and that they didn’t fall for Smollett’s bizarre pitch for improving his contract with Empire, and didn’t accuse Donald Trump of having incited what Kamala Harris and Cory Booker called a twenty-first century lynching. The Empire producers, less susceptible to Smollett’s method-acting negotiation strategy, have dropped him from the rest of the season.
So, what’s the way back for Jussie? His first response, to evoke racial solidarity with the Empire cast, and by extension with all black Americans, is the wrong move. Black Americans seem to carry a burden of authenticity. I can’t tell whether they take it on voluntarily, or whether white Americans dump it on them, or whether this is a co-dependent strategy for escaping the past. But there it is. White people have magazines called Sports Illustrated and Golf Today. Black people have Essence. Smollett has betrayed his essence, and won’t be forgiven.
As Roger Kimball rightly notes, Smollett staged a piece of ‘carefully rehearsed performance art’. If Smollett were white, he could get away with a false confession that he’s a meta-real prankster like the appalling Laura Albert. She created a literary alter ego called J.T LeRoy, complete with child-abuse backstory, and retailed liberal fantasies about rednecks back to the liberals by writing apparently autobiographical novels about white proles in West Virginia. Alex Jones’s lawyer has defended his client’s more demented statements are those of a ‘performance artist’. And people say there’s no such thing as white privilege.
Also, Smollett is gay, and black Americans tend to be less accepting of homosexuality than other Americans. Don Lemon, the oracle of CNN, has described being a gay black man as ‘about the worst thing that you can be in black culture’. The actual worst thing is to be a gay black man who fakes a racist assault as a career leveraging strategy.
Being a black actor has made Smollett wealthy, but acting black cannot help now. His best chances of getting from dehab to rehab lies in combining the obvious — tearful apologies, payments to police welfare funds, a carefully timed nervous breakdown — with acting like he’s changing sides. Being a gay black man might be about the worst thing you can be in black culture, but it could be a career-saving move if Smollett plays the part for liberal white media.
Smollett might claim that he was acting out because of self-loathing caused by black homophobia, and position himself as counsellor to a community struggling with a hyper-masculine self-image. The bodybuilding Osundairo brothers might be able to help with this, as they’ve helped with so much in the past. Or he might play up the Jewish side of his background, praise the State of Israel’s tolerance of gays, and even work for the Democratic party’s holy grail, that elusive black-Jewish reconciliation. Either way, his new friends, and the people most willing to get him to rehab, are the white liberals who are currently contributing to his dehab. That’s America for you.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.