Jussie Smollett scandal left ‘Empire’ co-creator Lee Daniels feeling ‘beyond embarrassed’

“Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels has walked back his publicly-expressed belief former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was anything other than a victim in his January hate-crime scandal. But he’s not ready to believe that Smollett is totally guilty, either.

“I’m beyond embarrassed,” Daniels told Vulture, referencing the late-February charges in which prosecutors accused Smollett of planning the attack. For his friend to make himself look like the victim of an anti-black and homophobic crime seemed completely out of character to the writer/director, who is. also black and gay.

It would still be a huge betrayal “if it turned out that he did it, was guilty and all of it’s accurate,” he said. But “of course, there’s still some doubt.” 

Daniels added, “We weren’t there. I can’t judge him. That’s only for the (expletive) lady or man with that black robe and God.”

He also told Vulture that he’s had to distance himself from Smollett and the entire situation for his own emotional health, explaining, “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.”

"Empire" co-creator Lee Daniels (left) is still grappling with the truth in the Jussie Smollett (right) hate crime scandal. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Smollett’s saga has been especially trying for Daniels because the relationship between his character, Jamal Lyons (who will be written out for the sixth and final season), and his father (Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard),  was based heavily on his relationship with his own father, who abused him for being gay.

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“I love (Smollett) so much,” he said. “That’s the torture 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.” 

Daniels also told Vulture that he believes the Smollett’s scandal “certainly… played a major part” in Fox’s decision to cancel the musical drama after the upcoming sixth season. He also dismissed reports that circulated last week claiming that Smollett would return to the cast after all.

Still, he teases, Season 6 may not be the last we see of the Lyon family.

“Empire, in in its current iteration may be over, but ‘Empire’ is far from over,” Daniels said. “We’re trying something out, and if it works, then ‘Empire’ is over and we have a great spinoff. And if it doesn’t, then ‘Empire’ may not very well be over. But the intent is to have our last season with a great spinoff.”

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