Outside of extended cable programs explicitly centering queer narratives, few narrative television shows highlighted out and unapologetic Black LGBTQ characters the way HBO’s “True Blood” did with Nelsan Ellis’ Lafayette Reynolds. The Undefeated culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald pays respects to Ellis, who The Hollywood Reporter notes died of heart failure at age 39 on Saturday (July 8), and his contributions to the television landscape in a new retrospective essay.
McDonald emphasizes how Ellis—a Julliard graduate raised in Alabama, two states away from “True Blood’s” rural Louisiana setting—gave life to a complex depiction of Black queerness that contrasted with the era’s cultural and political context:
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.
McDonald cites one specific scene, where Reynolds confronts homophobic White men, as emblematic of the character’s strongest traits:
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 with 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 with that?”
“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*****s 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 your got-damn 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.
The writer also touches on Ellis’ other roles in films like “Get On Up” and “Little Boxes” before quoting his previous comments to Vibe about the pigeonholing often impacts Black character actors:
It annoys me when the industry people are like that, but 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,” because 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.”
Read the full essay over at TheUndefeated.com.