LOS ANGELES — Jussie Smollett’s career faced mortality after he was arrested and accused of lying about being targeted in a January hate crime attack, and the case’s abrupt dismissal hasn’t exactly cleared the actor’s path to professional redemption.
Enormous backlash has emerged since Chicago prosecutors announced Tuesday that they were dropping 16 felony counts that accused the “Empire” actor of falsely reporting to police that he was assaulted by two men in downtown Chicago early Jan. 29. Numerous questions about the handling of the case remain , although a prosecutor says the dismissal is not an exoneration.
The murkiness of the incident — Smollett and his lawyers maintain he is the victim of a vicious attack while Chicago’s mayor and police chief contend it was staged — could make it an uphill climb for Smollett to get his acting and music career back on track, crisis management experts say.
“My gut tells me that the public does not believe that he is innocent,” said Eric Rose, a partner at the public-relations firm Englander Knabe & Allen. “They believe there was some sort of favoritism. That he cut a deal because of his wealth and power. It’s not good for him.”
Rose said he doesn’t think Smollett is innocent and the actor needs to “come clean” if he wants any chance to restore his image.
“(Smollett) can continue to have roles in Hollywood and act and perform and be well accepted as soon as he takes responsibility,” Rose said.
Smollett is known for his role as the gay character Jamal Lyon on the Fox series “Empire,” which follows a black family navigating the ups and downs of the music industry. He won’t appear on the final two episodes of this season, its fifth.
The actor doesn’t have any upcoming projects beyond “Empire.” He is nominated for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series at the 50th annual NAACP Image Awards on Saturday, although it remains unclear whether he will attend.
The alleged attack and Smollett’s arrest occurred during the show’s winter break, and it appears viewers have already tuned out Smollett’s character’s story line.
Since “Empire” returned March 13, the series has averaged 4.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen company. That’s a 7 percent drop from last year’s numbers.
Despite being written off the last two episodes, Fox officials have shown support for Smollett. But the network hasn’t said if the show will bring him back when the series resumes later this year.
“Jussie Smollett has always maintained his innocence and we are gratified that all charges against him have been dismissed,” Fox said in a statement Tuesday.
David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision PR Group, believes Smollett’s brand and career are already damaged and many will be leery to work with him. He said the actor needs to answer “hard-hitting questions” from a respected journalist to try to explain his innocence once again.
“He needs to convey his story, his anger, his outrage at what happened and his side of the story,” Johnson said. “He also needs to address his feelings on why social media and everybody else were too quick to jump to judgment on him.”
Smollett and his lawyers insist the attack was real, saying two masked men shouted racial and anti-gay slurs, poured bleach on him, beat him and looped a rope around his neck. The actor claimed they shouted “This is MAGA country” — a reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
The 36-year-old actor’s breakthrough came on “Empire,” earning Emmy and Grammy nominations. Last year, he released his debut album “Sum of My Music” independently on his own label, and appeared in “Alien: Covenant” in 2017. His career started early; he was one of the young stars of “The Mighty Ducks” film in 1992.
Along with fans, Johnson said Smollett needs to earn the trust back from power players in the entertainment industry who might be cautious about fully embracing him.
“He should be worried about the producers, directors and the people in Hollywood,” Johnson said. “They’re looking and gauging how the public is reacting to this deal. That’s why he really needs to get ahead and really tell a convincing story.”