There’s no question that America continues to struggle with race, whether one views it through the country’s horrific past or its complicated present. That’s something that Jussie Smollett found out first hand when he tackled the topic for the docuseries America Divided, which returns to EPIX with a second season of celebrity correspondents exploring inequality throughout the United States.
“To see how far we’ve come and not come as a country is crazy and mind-boggling,” the Empire star tells ET about his work on the project.
Smollett’s episode, “Whose History?,” airing May 25, finds the multitalented performer traveling to Tennessee to witness the growing movement to remove Confederate monuments and explore the deaths of thousands of African Americans who were lynched during decades of racial terror. The project, which was brought to Smollett’s attention by fellow actor Alfre Woodard, hit close to home.
“I’m a man who leads with his blackness and consider myself well-versed in what we as a people have gone through,” Smollett says. “But doing this research has been life-changing.”
Smollett visits activists on both sides in Memphis, where the legacy of slave owner, Confederate general and businessman Nathan Forrest Bedford rankles those who believe that the city shouldn’t honor someone who destroyed families and profited off the backs of slave labor, and infuriates those who think people are trying to erase a so-called pillar of the state’s history.
During one particularly powerful interview, Smollett sits across from Lee Miller, a member of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, and the tension between the men is palpable as Smollett tries to explain why honoring an unabashed slave owner in 2018 is a troublesome proposition and Miller continues to advocate for Bedford and the Confederacy.
“It took everything in my spirit to not jump up and kick his ass,” Smollett recalls with a laugh. “I kept thinking, ‘What would Oprah do?’ To sit across from a man and look in his eyes and see he really, genuinely believes what he is saying -- this isn’t an act. He’s not portraying a character. He believes it’s right. That right there is incredibly … shocking, to be honest with you. It puts so many things into perspective about what so many white Southerners still choose to carry.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Afterward, I was completely and utterly empty. I don’t think he enjoyed it either. And that is the one, single thing we have in common.”
An even more disturbing corner of history the show delves into is the act of lynching and the thousands of families who were affected, some of those who have never received closure. Smollett visits the recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, with a 97-year-old man whose brother was lynched, with no consequences for those involved, in a small Tennessee town in 1939.
“What is to be learned from this piece of the docuseries is that it’s the prime example, the answer to the question of ‘Why can’t you let it die?’ ” Smollett says. “White people say, ‘Why can’t we have our culture, our history?’ When you watch this, you see why you can’t enjoy the fruits of your ancestors’ labor. It wasn’t labor at all. It was the demolition of a people. And for that, no, you can’t fly your flag. You don’t get to have that. Hear it from the people’s mouths who went through it, who witnessed it.”
Smollett was so moved by his experience on the show, he signed up as an executive producer for the series, joining the ranks of Norman Lear and Gretchen Carlson, whose episode about sexual harassment in Washington, D.C., opens the season on May 4.
“There are little mirrors we hold up to the world as artists,” Smollett says. “I would like to think that I’m not overly speaking for artists, but I do think that art changes lives. And there are things like this, where you’re pulling the curtain open, and sometimes you have to shame a motherfucker into doing the right thing.”
This is a busy time for the 34-year-old actor, who will see the episode of Empire he directed premiere during sweeps week. In addition, he recently published a cookbook, The Family Table: Recipes and Moments from a Nomadic Life, with siblings Jake Smollett, Jazz Smollett-Warwell and Jurnee Smollett-Bell. And, most near and dear to his heart, he released his debut album, Sum of My Music, and is about to embark on a tour of Europe and the U.S. in support of the intensely personal work.
“Everybody is telling me I need to stop, I need to slow down, but this is what I live for,” he says. “I get to have a career that I love and a career I feel can be impactful. That right there? I’m good. This is the most beautiful exhaustion of my life. There’s not one thing I’m going to take for granted. I’m not going to work myself into an early grave, but I’m damn sure going to try.”
America Divided season two premieres May 4 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on EPIX.
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