Jussie Smollett is the definition of intersectionality, and he seems to do it effortlessly. An actor, musician, activist, and producer, he aims to bridge the gaps dividing industries and communities to shed light on stories that are often left untold. His supporters and fans say he stands with power — strong and resilient — in the face of adversity, anything short of victory is unacceptable.
Best known for his BET Award-nominated role in Empire that launched him to superstardom, Smollett now acts as executive producer on the EPIX show America Divided, which premiered on May 4. The show confronts hidden ideologies many citizens refuse to acknowledge. Smollett hopes to educate viewers on why these issues matter, and how we can come together and move forward towards social and economic equality. The five-part docu-series highlights issues including Native American rights, coal mining, sexual harassment, Confederate monuments, and sanctuary cities.
In the episode, “Whose History?” which premieres this Friday, he travels to Tennessee to witness the growing movement to bring down Confederate monuments and commemorate the deaths of thousands of African-Americans lynched during decades of racial terror. In one of the episode’s toughest scenes, Smollett interviews Lee Miller, leader of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, an association comprising of male descendants of those who fought in the Confederacy during the Civil War. It’s an interview he admits was especially hard to sit through.
“It's so interesting to sit across from someone and look them in the eye, talk to them about the history of your people, and they're trying to create something else that is not even true,” he says of Lee’s attempt at whitewashing the South’s legacy of racism. “It's blatant lies, and it's there only to serve their agenda.”
In another scene, Smollett speaks with an older Black man who is asked if he ever sees justice truly prevailing in his lifetime. He said, “No.”
“I think that if you look at the time that [he] grew up in, it was a different time… as far as the hope of humanity,” Smollett admits. “I think that he's made peace. But I also think, sadly, he had to make peace.”
Smollett says the killing of unarmed Black men and women going unpunished — and no end in sight to the mass incarceration, police brutality, and racial profiling in American culture — is a cycle. And it is one that continues to feed itself because we aren’t speaking enough about these issues to each other.
“For our generation and younger, we're seeing the rise of social media, we're seeing the rise of outrage and putting that toward something positive,” he adds. “I think that we're starting to put the two and two together of the fact that this is not actually getting worse. It's just getting more visible.”
“Everybody wants to be like, ‘Oh well, why is it that it always has to be about this? Why can't we just enjoy our lives? That happened, it is what it is. Why can't we have our history?’ For all those ignorant questions, America Divided answers them.”
Smollett says America Divided is “showing you why you can't have your quote-unquote history, why you can't have your flags flying high, why you cannot have your monument.”
The same rise of social media that leads to positive change has also unleashed a need for people to express their opinions, Smollett says, even if that opinion is rooted in ignorance.
“Sometimes people speak just to speak,” adds Smollett. “In the generation of social media and YouTube and all of these social platforms… people are now trying to state their opinions that are so fucking ridiculous just to get attention. It's a marketing ploy. Half of the people, you don't even know what the fuck they're talking about. Half of these motherfuckers don't even know what their opinion is actually about.”
“I don't speak about things that I absolutely cannot,” he counters. “My ego is strong enough to say I need to do some research, I need to figure some things out before I just spew my opinion. Everybody has an opinion, but everybody also has an asshole. It doesn't mean that we need to see or hear every fucking thing. You need to think about things, and you need to strategize, you need to be informed before you speak on things as if you are a master of it.”
In the lynching episode, Smollett uncovers truths seldom repeated, including that when a man was lynched, up to 5,000 people could be present to treat it like a fair or carnival. He also points out there were numerous Black women who were lynched as well, challenging the idea that Black women were “merely” raped. Knowing these details, Smollett argues, is crucial.
For Smollett, silence can be deadly.
“If you think about all of the issues in our nation — from race, gender equality, homophobia, immigration to HIV [and] AIDS, the running thing has been to silence it,” he explains. “Don't talk about it. If you talk about it, you're annoying. If you talk about it, you're a Debbie Downer, you're a killjoy, or you're a buzzkill. If these things are out in the open, then we actually have to deal with truth and reconciliation. And people don't want to do that.”
He says that bigots aren’t going away.
“You're always going to have racists, you're always going to have homophobes, you're always going to have these idiotic people,” he continues. “What you can do is change the power of those people, you can change the power of those beliefs, so that the opposite of those thoughts and beliefs is what becomes the norm. Without telling the truth and reconciling what actually happened, we'll never all be free. Those white Southerners that want to keep up those monuments, they are not mentally free. They have never been physically shackled. But guess what? Their ancestors did the shackling. Mentally, they are shackled.”
As co-executive producer, Smollett says his mission with America Divided is to show that most people are inherently good, but still he says we’ve become a “desensitized nation.”
“I really do think that as a nation, we think too highly of ourselves,” he says. “I think that with the progress we've made, it is wonderful. This is a great country and we could be even greater. However, what we're failing to realize was that Obama was the anomaly. Donald Trump represents a lot of our country. That's fact. This is the truth that people don't want to accept. He represents a large mental instability and mental disorder of our country. We are a mentally ill nation. Look at what we were built upon, this place we call home, think about what this country was built on. It was built on stealing, murder, and thievery — stealing, murder, and the termination of an entire people.”
He continues, “We need to be trying to change instead of saying, ‘Oh, it's a great place, we just have to do xyz.’ No. We have to make it good from the ground up. Something has to be dismantled and rebuilt, point blank period. And the only way it's going to happen is if the people that want to love and the people that believe in equality and peace talk louder than the people that want hate.”
Smollett's episode "Whose History?" airs this Friday, May 25, on EPIX.