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“Empire” co-creator and executive producer Lee Daniels says he is "beyond embarrassed" by his initial public support for actor Jussie Smollett, who was charged with faking a hate crime attack. But he is not convinced Smollett is guilty.
Daniels told New York magazine's culture and entertainment website, Vulture, that when Smollett, who is black and gay, reported he was attacked Jan. 29 in downtown Chicago, he was inclined to believe the "Empire" actor. Smollett claimed two masked men hurled racial and homophobic slurs, placed a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him.
Authorities alleged that Smollett knew the men, Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, and had arranged for them to pretend to attack him. Police believed he staged the attack because he was unhappy with his salary on "Empire" and wanted to gain public sympathy.
"I’m beyond embarrassed," Daniels said. "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."
Daniels, who had been among the first to voice his support for Smollett after he made the report, also said he is uncertain if Smollett staged the attack.
"I’m telling you that because I love him so much," Daniels said. "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."
Daniels said he did not read any media coverage of the incident because he was "too busy putting out fires."
"We weren’t there. I can’t judge him," Daniels said. "That’s only for the f------ lady or man with that black robe and God."
The Oscar-nominated director said he had to distance himself from the case.
"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," Daniels said. "It was affecting my spirit and other shows, everything."
Smollett was arrested in February, but prosecutors dropped the charges in March. He has maintained his innocence and insists he was attacked.
Fox announced in May that the show's recently announced sixth season will be its last. Asked if he believed that Smollett's case played a part, Daniels said, "Certainly, that played a major part."
He added: "But come on, man. I think that it’s been a good run. 'Empire' in its current iteration may be over, but 'Empire' is far from over."