Empire co-creator Lee Daniels was one of Jussie Smollett’s most vocal supporters in January, when the actor said he was the victim of a hate crime.
The day of the alleged attack, Daniels posted a since-deleted video on Instagram, saying it was “just another f-cking day in America.” Now that Smollett has been publicly accused of staging the attack, Daniels told Vulture he regrets speaking out so quickly.
“I’m beyond embarrassed,” Daniels said in the interview published Tuesday. “I think that when it happened, I had a flash of me running from bullies. I had a flash of my whole life, of my childhood, my youth, getting beaten.”
The Oscar-nominated director went on to say Smollett is like a son, yet he has doubts about the actor’s version of events.
“Of course, there’s some doubt,” Daniels stated. “I’m telling you that because I love him so much. That’s the torture that I’m in right now, because it’s literally if it were to happen to your son and your child, how would you feel? You would feel, ‘Please, God, please let there be that glimmer of hope that there is some truth in this story.’ That’s why it’s been so painful. It was a flood of pain.”
On Jan. 29, Smollett told police he was walking down a Chicago street, when two masked men approached him and began yelling racial and homophobic slurs. The actor said the suspects beat him, doused him with a chemical, wrapped a rope around his neck and said “this is MAGA country.”
Vulture reminded Daniels that Chicago police alleged Smollett hired two brothers to attack him, in hopes of getting a salary increase on Empire. The reporter said in the article that there’s little doubt the incident was a “hoax.”
Daniels responded by saying he refuses to judge Smollett.
“We weren’t there. I can’t judge him,” he said. “That’s only for the f-cking lady or man with that black robe and God. I had to detach myself and stop calling him, because it was taking away the time I have for my kids, the time I have for my partner. It was affecting my spirit and other shows, everything.”
Cook County prosecutors charged Smollett with 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report. The actor maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty. In a surprise move on March 26, the state’s attorney’s office dropped the charges.
The city is now suing him in civil court to recover more than $130,000 it claims to have spent on police overtime hours investigating the case.
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Smollett’s character Jamal Lyon was written out of the final episodes of Season 5 of the Fox series. Despite reports that the actor would return for the show’s sixth and final season, Daniels took to Twitter to say the stories were untrue.
“Jussie will NOT be returning to Empire,” he tweeted on June 4.