‘True Blood’s’ Nelsan Ellis, dead at 39, was a unique and undeniable talent
He made Lafayette Reynolds an important character rarely seen on screen
Hooker, you left way too soon.
I imagine that’s what True Blood’s Lafayette Reynolds would say about the untimely death of Nelsan Ellis, the actor who created him. Ellis, a 2004 Juilliard graduate, died of heart failure at age 39, his manager said Saturday.
On True Blood, which aired on HBO from 2008 to 2014, Ellis brought to life one of the most important depictions of queerness on television, in a series that bubbled with crazy camp improbabilities. His short-order cook who moonlighted as a drug and vampire blood dealer was enticing and bawdy, femme and butch, learned and country AF. He was open and unapologetic about his love of sex and the male form while living in the tiny fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana — the type of place where it’s not necessarily safe to be gay, or black, and certainly not both at the same time.
As Lafayette, Ellis expanded the country’s collective imagination of what a queer black man could look, sound and act like, starting just months before California passed Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, and years before President Barack Obama announced an “evolution” in his thinking about gay rights. And for queer black people, he was a reflection of a truth rarely seen on screens big or small, especially after the Logo series Noah’s Arc went off the air in 2006.
“Important” often implies that something is the cultural equivalent of kale: fiber-packed, nutritious, but not exactly fun. For example, Red Tails is arguably an “important” film because it’s about the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s also … not very good.
But in Ellis’ hands, Lafayette would deliver acerbic quips with the expert raise of an eyebrow, succinctly summarizing the pitfalls of patriarchy without making your eyes glaze over. He could just as easily spread his glossed lips into a smile and flutter his fake eyelashes as he could hem up a delinquent customer in a full nelson, a quality that made him eminently GIF-able.
Lafayette existed before Dan Savage launched his It Gets Better project in 2010, a nonprofit aimed at stopping queer kids from committing suicide when their adolescent years seem interminably, hopelessly miserable. And that’s significant. Certainly, it’s important for a suicidal teen to know that life improves as you get older and get away from people and attitudes that fill your life with hate. But Lafayette provided a different, necessary sort of queer hero, shaped in part by the gender-bending provocations of New Orleans sissy bounce queens Big Freedia and Katey Red, a boi that you couldn’t just push around.
My favorite scene of Ellis’ is also one of his most famous. It’s from episode five of the first season of True Blood, when a customer at Merlotte’s, the restaurant where Lafayette works, sends his burger back to the kitchen because, he tells his waitress, he doesn’t want a burger with “AIDS.”
Lafayette, fully and perfectly made up despite sweating over a hot stove, pulls his earrings off and comes swaggering out of the kitchen, head wrapped in his glittery take on Louisiana’s famous tignons. His body is a mass of gender-nonconforming contradictions: From the neck up, he’s practically coquettish, but he’s wearing a tank top that shows off his toned biceps, black Timbs and camo shorts that hang off his butt, held just so by a belt perhaps best described as ghetto fabulous.
Lafayette delivers a read in his signature Louisiana drawl, informed by Ellis’ childhood spent growing up in Bessemer, Alabama: “’Scuse me,” he says. “Who ordered the hamburger wit’ AIDS?”
“I ordered a hamburger deluxe,” the customer responds.
“In this restaurant, a hamburger deluxe come wit’ french fries, lettuce, tomato, mayo — AND AIDS,” Lafayette says, raising his voice. “DO ANYBODY GOT A PROBLEM WIT’ DAT?”
“Yeah,” says the customer. “I’m an American. I got a say in who makes my food.”
“Well, baby, it’s too late for that,” Lafayette retorts. “F—-ts been breeding your cows, raising your chickens, even brewing your beer long before I walked my sexy a– up in this m—–f—–. Everything on yo’ gotdamn table got AIDS.”
Lafayette’s altercation with the customer gets physical. “B—-, you come in my house, YOU GON’ EAT MY FOOD THE WAY I F—ING MAKE IT!” he bellows. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?”
And just as swiftly, his temper recedes. “Tip your waitress,” he says before sauntering back to the kitchen, every set of eyes in the restaurant on him.
It wasn’t just that Lafayette was a self-affirming queen who didn’t take no mess. He was country and proud of it, providing the sort of regional stamp on queerness that would later set Moonlight apart because it was so steeped in the specifics of Miami and, furthermore, the Pork and Beans of the Liberty Square housing projects. It’s part of what makes Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) such a memorable part of The Wire — his gayness isn’t the defining feature of his character. He’s gay in a way that feels unique to the projects of Baltimore. Similarly, Williams added a regional flair to his depiction of Leonard Pine, one half of the Texas duo Hap and Leonard. Those characters — Moonlight’s Black, Lafayette, Omar and Leonard — offer a counterweight to prevailing tropes of queerness that’s white, polite, well-off, neatly domesticated, sexless and almost always cosmopolitan. When it first aired in 2005, Noah’s Arc in many ways felt like a black response to the overwhelming whiteness of Showtime’s American adaptation of Queer as Folk, another landmark show that challenged what it meant to see gay men on television. Noah’s Arc centered on a group of middle-class gay black men living in Los Angeles. It was a way to say, “Hey, black people live in gentrified gayborhoods and drink cosmopolitans and battle HIV stigma too.”
But characters like Leonard and Lafayette offer depictions of men who are able to make space for themselves in the places they call home, without having to move out of one’s oppressively small hometown.
And although he’ll long be remembered for Lafayette, Ellis was more than just one character. In his too-brief career, Ellis exhibited a rare elasticity and was famously circumspect about his sexuality. Ellis’ interpretation of Lafayette was so memorable that of course he’d seem right at home as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, which he was. Still, Ellis managed to erase all traces of his breakout character in Get On Up, in which he played singer-songwriter and James Brown collaborator Bobby Byrd, and in The Butler, where he played Martin Luther King Jr. By the time he inhabited Mack Burns, a writer obsessed with free jazz in a straight interracial relationship in the 2017 film Little Boxes, Lafayette was nowhere to be found.
Indeed, Ellis found it insulting when entertainment professionals seemed to overlook his Juilliard bona fides by assuming that he wasn’t a character actor.
“I can’t just get upset with regular folk because all they see is the character. But when the industry can’t tell the difference, I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s a little closed-minded,’ ” Ellis told Vibe in a 2010 interview. “… When white people play a character, people expect it to be a character. But black people — we can’t just be character actors, we have to [really] be the things we’re hired for, which is what offends me. I don’t answer that question — ‘Are you gay or not?’ — when it comes down to industry people. But if it’s a regular person asking me, that just says that maybe I’m doing a good job. But when a casting director or an agent asks me that question, it takes on a deeper thing that says, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this unless you are that.’ ”
Ellis wasn’t alone in that regard. Nine years after the last episode of The Wire aired, Williams is still insisting in interviews that he’s more than just Omar Little, despite a litany of roles, gay and straight, since Omar debuted.
During his short life and career, Ellis opened our eyes to new possibilities: You can be queer and country and happy. You can be black and a character actor. You can, in short, contain multitudes. What a shame that Ellis won’t be around to show us more.