CHICAGO — Ever since he was a child actor growing up in a show-business family, Jussie Smollett’s life blended activism with the make-believe worlds of television and movies.
As he got his early breaks in a television mini-series and Disney’s 1992 hockey comedy “The Mighty Ducks,” and did press junkets for a short-lived ABC sitcom starring him and his five siblings, Mr. Smollett was also steeped in causes like AIDS activism and ending apartheid. He spoke of his mother’s closeness with the Black Panthers and prominent civil-rights leaders, and how she had encouraged Mr. Smollett and his brothers and sisters to create art and live out their beliefs.
But now, fantasy and politics have collided in a way that has upended everything Mr. Smollett worked for. He is facing prison time and widespread public scorn over accusations that he concocted and carried out a false attack with racist and anti-gay details, capitalizing on broader anxieties about hate crimes under President Trump.
Given his long history in show business, it is all the more baffling to friends and associates that Mr. Smollett, who is black and openly gay, would risk so much on a story that seems to have crumbled under intense scrutiny by police investigators.
The Chicago police say that Mr. Smollett had been upset over his salary and wanted to stir up publicity when he filed a police report saying that two masked men had beaten him and thrown a noose around his neck as he walked home at 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, in the wealthy Streeterville neighborhood of downtown Chicago.
According to police and court records, Mr. Smollett staged the attack as if he were a director putting on his first play. He paid two brothers who had worked on “Empire” $ 3,500, asked them to buy ski masks and a noose to use as props and told them which epithets to hurl when they attacked him. The police say Mr. Smollett even scoped out neighborhood security cameras to ensure the assault would be recorded.
Mr. Smollett’s lawyers say he is innocent, but his career now hangs in doubt after “Empire” executive producers wrote him off the season’s final two episodes, and his tale of hatred and racism has instead become a cultural brawl over deception and “fake news.”
The Hollywood friends who rallied behind Mr. Smollett the loudest are now struggling with where to place their allegiance — with their outspoken friend Jussie, or with the Chicago Police Department, an agency long criticized for its treatment of black people. In this case, though, the police laid out an unusually expansive and detailed timeline that appears to undermine Mr. Smollett’s claims.
“I stand with Jussie, under the principle that he is family to me, and he’s always stood for me,” said Ralph Harris, who starred with Mr. Smollett and Mr. Smollett’s five siblings on a short-lived 1994 ABC sitcom, “On Our Own,” about orphaned children trying to stay together by outwitting the authorities.
“But I’m a realist, and I respect law, and I respect what I’ve been seeing and hearing as well of the investigation — although Chicago does have its reputation,” Mr. Harris added. “But what I say in that case is if this is something that he’s responsible for, I stand by him — because then we need to get him help.”
Conservatives who had publicly doubted the story from the start seized on the criminal charges against Mr. Smollett as evidence that the news media and liberals would credulously run with any narrative that tarnished Mr. Trump and his supporters.
Democratic politicians and liberal supporters of Mr. Smollett who had called the assault a modern-day lynching and an example of the rise in hate crimes since Mr. Trump’s election are now grappling with feelings of shock, anger, confusion and shame. Activists worry that victims of hate crimes will now face greater skepticism, or might not report future crimes at all.
“Jussie Smollett understood this moment, and understood the heightened sensitivity to hate, to racism, to homophobia, and sought to manipulate it to his own benefit,” said David Axelrod, who covered Chicago politics as a journalist long before becoming a top adviser to President Barack Obama.
For Mr. Smollett, arts and activism were intertwined throughout his childhood.
His parents met while campaigning for civil rights in the Bay Area of California, and his mother had worked with the founders of the Black Panthers and prominent civil-rights leaders, according to a New York Times interview with Mr. Smollett in 2016. Between child-acting gigs and press junkets that the six siblings did for their 1994 ABC sitcom, their mother, Janet Smollett, made sure the children played sports and read about figures like Malcolm X and Langston Hughes, she told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. (His family did not respond to phone or email messages.)
“I know their mother, Janet, has always taught them to stand up for themselves, and for what they believe,” Mr. Harris said. “They seemed like they were beyond their years.”
Mr. Smollett embraced social movements. He worked for Artists for a New South Africa. He served on the board of directors of the Black AIDS Institute, and grew outspoken as Black Lives Matter took shape. In 2017, Mr. Smollett released a politically charged single, “F.U.W.,” a sort of resistance anthem with a black-and-white video taking aim at the Trump administration and white male privilege.
His breakout role was Jamal Lyon, a talented member of the “Empire” hip-hop dynasty who struggles to get his family to accept that he is gay.
When Mr. Smollett learned that the show’s creator Lee Daniels was casting the role, he sent a direct message to Mr. Daniels saying that he sang, acted, danced and wrote music, Mr. Smollett told Entertainment Weekly. Mr. Smollett said he had promised Mr. Daniels that “I am Jamal Lyon in more ways than one.” He got an audition, and he got the part.
Mr. Smollett reportedly earned between $ 65,000 and $ 100,000 per episode, and had not previously raised objections about his salary to Fox, which broadcasts the show, people familiar with the show have told The Times.
But the Chicago police superintendent, Eddie T. Johnson, said that Mr. Smollett had been dissatisfied with the money he was making and decided to do something about it.
On Jan. 25, Mr. Smollett sent a text message to a friend, Abimbola Osundairo, who had worked as a stand-in for the love interest of Mr. Smollett’s “Empire” character. Mr. Smollett had befriended and worked out with Mr. Osundairo, a bodybuilder and former college football player, and that morning, Mr. Smollett had a mission in mind, according to court documents.
“Might need your help on the low,” he texted. “You around to meet up and talk face to face?”
As the two men drove around Chicago together, Mr. Smollett said he was dissatisfied with how the “Empire” studio had responded to a threatening letter he said he had received on Jan. 22 at the Chicago facility where the show films. The letter was laced with a powder — determined to be crushed ibuprofen — and said “Smollett Jussie you will die black,” followed by an anti-gay slur, according to prosecutors. It has been turned over to the F.B.I.
Superintendent Johnson later said at a news conference that Mr. Smollett had actually sent the letter to himself as a way to get attention.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Smollet told Mr. Osundairo that he wanted to stage an attack on himself and cast him and his older brother, Olabinjo, who had been an extra on “Empire.” The brothers are of Nigerian descent, but were born in the United States.
The Osundairos — who go by Abel and Ola — were struggling financially on the outer edges of show business. They had each declared bankruptcy in September 2016 and had been weighed down by credit-card debt and student loans.
The brothers lived together in a small apartment on a busy boulevard on Chicago’s North Side, and had been trying to develop business ventures that married physical fitness, entertainment and their religious faith. John King Johnson, a friend, described them as “inseparable.”
“They have always had an acting dream and it seems like it has grown over the years,” said Devin Allen, another friend who played college football with the brothers at Quincy University in southwestern Illinois. Referring to Olabinjo, whom he was closer to, he said: “Nobody is perfect. Nobody has a spotless past. He was temporarily overcome at the time with whatever he was tempted with, like money.”
After Mr. Smollett reported the attack, investigators painstakingly used security-camera footage and records from taxi cabs and a rideshare to identify the brothers and track their movements that freezing cold night. They were detained and questioned by the police, but have not been charged and are acting as cooperating witnesses in the case.
Across Chicago, the whipsawing anger was still raw for observers who watched Mr. Smollett walk silently out of court this week and disappear into a dark-windowed SUV.
“I’m disgusted,” said Ja’Mal Green, a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, who offered prayers of support for Mr. Smollett on the day that news of the attack broke. “Those of us who wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, who wanted to listen and support him, it pushes us up against the wall.”
Reporting was contributed by Monica Davey and Julie Bosman from Chicago and Sopan Deb and JoHN Koblin from New York. Susan Beachy contributed research.