RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The investigation into the alleged attack of Jussie Smollett took a remarkable turn last night. It's been a confusing three weeks since the star of the TV drama series "Empire" claimed that he was the victim of a hate crime.
Smollett is black and gay. He said that he was attacked near his Chicago apartment and that his attackers shouted racial and homophobic slurs, poured a, quote, "unknown chemical substance" on him and wrapped a noose around his neck. But this morning, Smollett turned himself in to Chicago police after he was charged with filing a false report.
Joining us now, Miles Bryan - he's a reporter for WBEZ in Chicago. He's been covering this case closely. Also with us, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans, who has written extensively about "Empire" since it debuted in 2015. Thanks to both of you for joining us.
MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: Thank you.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: Miles, I want to start with you. Jussie Smollett is being charged, as I noted, with disorderly conduct and filing false police reports. What does that mean exactly? What was false?
BRYAN: Right. So there are some details that we expect to come out later this afternoon at bond court when prosecutors present their case. He's been charged with a felony disorderly conduct charge for allegedly filing a false police report. And, you know, it's a pretty serious charge. It's a low-level felony, but it's still a felony, so that's punishable here in Illinois by up to three years in prison, which is probational and - potentially probational - and a number of fines.
MARTIN: And this is coming after - just a couple days after these two brothers were arrested in the case. They were later released. But can you explain what we know about the role that they played in this incident?
BRYAN: Yeah. These brothers seem to be essential for this case to have gone from an investigation into an alleged hate crime against Smollett to an investigation of Smollett himself. They were arrested last week and questioned for two days. But then, suddenly, the police released them, said they were no longer suspects and the investigation had taken a turn. And then, you know, we city reporters were just trying to figure out what that meant and were waiting just a couple of days where the police were fairly mum about what turn that was.
And then those brothers testified in front of a grand jury for a few hours yesterday immediately preceding the charges. And their attorney says, you know, they're telling their whole story. They're cooperating. Still haven't quite said exactly what that story is. Hopefully we'll get that full later today.
MARTIN: Right. But we should be clear what the allegations are because Smollett's lawyers have even responded to these allegations out there that he staged this attack. We can't confirm that that is particularly what the police are looking at, but it does point in that direction if they're now claiming that he filed a false police report about this.
MARTIN: Eric, I want to bring you into this conversation because this story has such added significance because of the cultural import of the show "Empire" that Jussie Smollett stars in. I mean, can you talk about what that show in particular has meant for the black LGBTQ community?
DEGGANS: Sure. So "Empire" was kind of a phenomenon from the minute that it debuted. It built audience every week its first season. And 60 percent of its audience was black back in those days in 2015. And so it was a powerful force among black TV viewers.
And Smollett's character, Jamal Lyon, is a black gay man. And Smollett and the show's co-creator Lee Daniels had been open about saying that their lives as black men - black gay men have informed the storylines of the characters. So they've used it to start discussions about homophobia in the black community or the fluidity of sexual orientation for some gay men. And it's really added an extra dimension of sort of education and activism to a series that was already considered kind of pioneering.
MARTIN: Right. So Lee Daniels and the whole team behind "Empire," really, had been vocal in supporting Jussie Smollett, even after these allegations came out about the possibility that he may have staged the attack. Is that changing now?
DEGGANS: As far as we know, we haven't heard anything contrary to that idea from that camp yet. Fox has expressed its support.
There were some early rumors that Smollett might have been worried about being written out of the show, but the show's co-creator Danny Strong said on Twitter that that was not - that was never the case. He's one of the main characters of the show.
And, in fact, his character is the moral center of the show. And so that's what makes this situation so odd. To have a character that's a moral center and have an actor who's known as an activist be accused of something like this is particularly troubling.
MARTIN: Right. Miles, just briefly, what happens now?
BRYAN: Well, Jussie Smollett is expected at bond court later this afternoon. And their prosecutors should finally lay out what they're actually claiming happened.
MARTIN: All right. More details to come. Miles Bryan of WBEZ in Chicago. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans talked to us as well. Thanks very much.
BRYAN: Thank you.
DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.