‘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.

Nelsan Ellis portraying character, Lafayette Reynolds in the show HBO show “True Blood.”

HBO

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.

Nelsan Ellis portraying character, Lafayette Reynolds in the show HBO show “True Blood.”

HBO

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.

Frederick Douglass coin becomes second release in the 2017 U.S. Mint collection The abolitionist leader joins an elite list of African-Americans to grace the collectors’ item

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., has joined the ranks of national monuments and historic sites as the 37th overall coin to be released in the America the Beautiful Quarters U.S. Mint collection.

The U.S. Mint produces circulating coinage and has featured some of America’s most important national parks and monuments since 2010. When the program ends in 2021, there will be 56 quarter-dollar coins available for collection.

This particular coin is the second 2017 release. It first featured the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, which was made available in February. Three more coins will be released to the public in June, August and November.

The Frederick Douglass coin features the original 1932 quarter obverse of President George Washington on the front, and Douglass —seated and writing at a desk with his Washington, D.C., home in the background — is on the coin’s reverse side.

Douglass remains one of the most influential African-Americans in history. He was an abolitionist, social reformer, activist and author who escaped slavery and went on to become one of the most well-known proponents of the abolitionist movement.

Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and began working as a body servant in Baltimore at 8 years old. Although slaves were not allowed to formally learn to read and write, and were severely punished if caught trying to learn on their own, Douglass ignored the warnings and taught himself anyway, finding an affinity for debates and speeches by age 12. In 1838, the 20-year-old Douglass had become fed up with oppression and began plotting his escape. With the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman whom Douglass would later marry, he disguised himself as a free black sailor and boarded a train that would take him from Baltimore to New York City.

Douglass and Murray began their new lives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass gained notoriety as an orator who traveled across the North and Midwest to speak out against slavery and the mistreatment of blacks. Douglass would go on to become a top recruiter of black troops in the Civil War, serve as the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia and the U.S. minister to Haiti, and write three autobiographical narratives describing his life experiences in great detail.

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is the only site featuring an African-American in the coin collection to date. The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee, Alabama, is set to join Douglass’ in 2021, closing out the 11-year program.

An Undefeated history: How Mal Whitfield excelled as an Olympian and a Tuskegee airman Learn more about the trailblazer who gained notoriety in the military and in sports

In the early part of the 20th century, Olympic athlete and Tuskegee Airman Mal Whitfield was on the intersection of two of the most prominent venues of opportunity for young black men: The military and sports. After gaining notoriety for both, Whitfield paid those opportunities forward, becoming an American goodwill ambassador, promoting sports across the world.

Here, Damion L. Thomas, curator of sports for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, explains the greatness of Mal Whitfield.

Black Stuntmen’s Association wants the Oscars to add ‘stuntin’ ‘ The ‘Hidden Figures of Hollywood’ speak out on how there are more African-Americans, but not enough

On the heels of 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, there was noticeably more diversity in the Academy Awards nominations this year, particularly in the major categories. But members of a trailblazing group of black performers who led a historic fight against Hollywood some 40 years ago – and won – say one category is still missing.

Willie Harris and fellow members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association (BSA), an organization lauded as the first of its kind to actively support and recruit both stunt performers of color and stuntwomen of all ethnicities, say they’re disappointed that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that puts on the annual awards show, has not added a category for stunt coordinators, those who hire stunt performers and oversee stunts in films, particularly action flicks that require complex and risky physical work.

Harris is also disappointed that the organization that he leads was not specifically invited to join in several recent demonstrations held in support of the more than two decades-long fight by the stunt community to get a stunt coordinators category added to the Oscars (a bicoastal protest led by the mostly white Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures last year in New York City and in Los Angeles near the academy offices reportedly yielded a petition with more than 80,000 signatures).

“We were the first to speak up for inclusion in Hollywood and [adding this category] is just another part of that,” said Harris, 75. “Even though we weren’t invited to participate [in the demonstrations], we support the stunt coordinators; they definitely deserve to be honored.”

Fellow BSA member Jadie David, 66, who doubled for iconic actress Pam Grier during her heyday in the ’70s, agrees: “It’s really an art form and should be acknowledged as such,” said David. “I believe that they should be acknowledged because [in so many ways] the action makes a movie.”

Taking on Hollywood head-on

Harris’ expressed support for the stunt coordinators category addition to the Oscars is both expected and ironic. The BSA has a long track record of spearheading and supporting diversity initiatives in Hollywood. However, it was those same feelings that Harris still speaks of today – a lack of inclusion – that inspired him and a group of 25 black stuntmen to found the organization in 1967. Their goal was to provide a platform for black stuntmen to network, train and, in many respects, help quell the sting of racism that permeated both their personal and professional lives. It didn’t take long, he said, for the organization to expand to include “women and other minorities” who also felt shut out of Tinseltown.

BSA members endured many disparities over the years, including some that led to lawsuits. In the early days, hands-on training was hard to come by, so they trained each other. But it was all of the emotional touchy-feely-Dr.-Phil-meets-Oprah support they extended each other, that members say, helped them to endure the perils (and the pain) of working in an industry that seemed determined to push them out or ignore them altogether.

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Courtesy of Black Stuntmen's Association

“They are the Tuskegee Airmen of the film and television; they’re the Hidden Figures of Hollywood,” said Nonie L. Robinson, granddaughter of late founding BSA president Ernie Robinson. He doubled for actor Philip Michael Thomas on the Miami Vice television series in the ’80s and worked on the films King Kong, the original Planet of the Apes and Greased Lightning. “They stood up for racial and gender equality in Hollywood at a time when it was unpopular and while doing so, they endured every form of racism and discrimination imaginable; they were overlooked for hiring and even when they were [hired], they often were mistreated on the set, called names and even denied access to adequate safety equipment.”

Instead of lying down and feeling, well defeated, BSA members channeled their emotions and their unsavory experiences into action, filing a groundbreaking lawsuit that would eventually force most of the major Hollywood studios to start hiring more women, people of color and other underrepresented groups in all areas of the industry – from makeup artistry, production and sound to directing, cinematography and acting.

“We are the ones who changed Hollywood; we are the reason you can see a Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and a Denzel Washington on the big screen today,” said Harris. “We didn’t just fight for blacks – we fought for the rights of women and other minorities too.”

The lawsuit focused on two discriminatory employment practices that many assert still persists today: “the paint-down,” the practice of putting dark makeup on white stunt performers and also the “wig down,” dressing stuntmen as women in wigs and dresses instead of hiring stunt performers of color or stuntwomen, respectively, to do the work.

In 1976, 27-year-old Margaret Ryan Kreeger, a recent University of San Francisco School of Law graduate, filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges against the major film and television studios on behalf of BSA members over a failure to enforce previous federal orders against discriminatory hiring. Kreeger worked as a trial attorney for the EEOC.

“Thankfully at that time I didn’t realize that you can’t just go out and sue [the big Hollywood studios], because had I known, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” said a laughing Kreeger, who still practices law. “But I had to do what I could to help. They put their lives and careers on the line to speak up on an issue and it wasn’t just for and about black people in the industry. It was such a slap in the face for them [in Hollywood] to go out of their way to paint down a white person and put a man in a wig than to hire qualified candidates of color and women.”

Though far from a household name, the BSA has been lauded for its efforts: It won an NAACP Image Award in 2012 and state legislators in California, Mississippi and Nevada have formally acknowledged the organization. Harris is scheduled to be honored March 7 at the 14th annual College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame celebration at the University of Las Vegas. Hands down the BSA’s biggest honor to date, though, is having its memorabilia, props, photos and news articles about the organization featured in the Hollywood-themed Taking The Stage exhibit at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Being at that museum and seeing our memorabilia in the Smithsonian was emotional; it truly gave a sense of our contributions to the industry,” said David, who lives in the Los Angeles area. “Being a part of that museum is definitely the biggest accomplishment of my career. I am sure most of us felt that way after being there.”

While in Washington, D.C., for the museum’s grand opening, some BSA members met with U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan and the longest-serving active member of Congress, to discuss ways to aid in their mission to “permanently eradicate gender and race discrimination in Hollywood.”

“It is disturbing that more than 50 years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, there is still unaddressed race and gender issues in some industries, including the entertainment industry,” said Conyers, who has spearheaded a Hollywood civil rights campaign. “It’s critical that we continue to have tough, earnest dialogue about these issues and shed light on them in order to progress.”

Breaking barriers

Despite the BSA’s legal victory in the ’80s, many complaints of discrimination still pour in that the paint-down and wig-down continues in the stunt industry and about a lack of diverse hiring in Hollywood overall. The BSA has joined forces with veteran stuntwoman Julie Johnson, who is white, on an effort to get Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union that represents all Hollywood film and television workers, to make changes to its contracts. Johnson met with SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris and several other Guild officials in January. During the meeting, she presented a 75-page report detailing her concerns, most of which are shared by the BSA, and included recommendations for change.

“The guild’s current contract states that stunt coordinators must ‘endeavor’ to cast qualified persons of the same sex and/or race’ as the person being doubled; language like that allows the discriminatory practices to continue as long as they make some minimal effort to find a stunt performer of the same gender and ethnicity as the actor being doubled,” said Johnson, who for many years worked as a stunt double on the ’80s television series Charlie’s Angels. She said she was ultimately blackballed in the industry in 1983 for speaking out about the “circle of oppression” in Hollywood, particularly the sexual harassment many stuntwomen face on film and television sets. “We want ‘endeavor’ changed to ‘must.’ If we accomplish that alone, that would be a huge success.” Johnson is also pushing for fines, a minimum of $10,000, to be imposed each on any producer, director or stunt coordinators found guilty of violating contract terms.

SAG-AFTRA spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said the organization “does not discuss private member meetings nor confidential information that may arise out of those conversations,” but emphasized that “SAG-AFTRA’s commitment to diversity – and to encouraging diverse hiring by our employers – is very well-known.” Added Greenwalt: “We take every opportunity to strengthen our contracts and will continue to ensure equal access to job opportunities, provide protection to those who work under our contracts and encourage greater inclusion throughout our jurisdiction as we have for decades.”

Robinson, of Los Angeles, is collecting donations to complete a documentary about the BSA that she hopes will be released in early 2018. She and Cecilia Peck, daughter of late Hollywood star Gregory Peck, are co-producing Breaking Bones, Breaking Barriers with musical icon Quincy Jones serving as executive producer. The film, which includes interviews with BSA members, activists, journalists and acclaimed Hollywood stars Lou Gossett Jr. and Whoopi Goldberg, was recently named Documentary of the Week by the International Documentary Film Association.

As for Harris, he spoke with academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs by phone last year and shared the BSA’s story and requested that the academy formally honor members for their industry contributions. He said he is still holding out hope that it’ll happen before the close of 2017, which marks the BSA’s 50th anniversary.

Either way, Harris said, he and his stunt brethren and sistren remain committed to the fight for more diversity in Hollywood. Perhaps David sums it up best: “Like that famous [1937] quote [by Jewel Vertner Woodson Tandy], ‘we will fight until hell freezes over and then we will fight on the ice!’ ”

On this day in black history: the first African-American senator goes to Congress, Cassius Clay beats Sonny Liston, Elijah Muhammad dies and R. Kelly wins three Grammys Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 25

1870 Hiram Rhodes Revels becomes the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Congress as the first African-American senator
As a young man, Hiram Rhodes Revels was an ordained minister who traveled the country educating African-Americans and, of course, preaching. During those trips, Revels would do his religious work but also maintain peace, working to prevent riots among slaves. Despite his caution, Revels was still arrested in 1854 while “preaching to the black community.”

During the Civil War, Revels worked and fought hard to represent people of color, even recruiting African-American troops in Maryland. Shortly after the war ended, Revels’ interest in politics grew. By 1870, Revels, a Republican, had worked his way up to the Mississippi State Senate, which elected him to the U.S. Senate.

1928 — “One-Man Show of Art by Negro” opens
“One-Man Show of Art by Negro, First of Kind Here Opens Today” read the headline of the front-page article in The New York Times. The opening of Archibald J. Motley Jr.’s show at the New Gallery on Madison Avenue was the first time an artist made the front page of Times and it was only the second one-person show by an African-American artist, the first being Henry O. Tanner.

1948 — Martin Luther King Jr. ordained
Before the Montgomery bus boycott, the “I Have a Dream” speech and the march from Selma, Alabama, a young Martin Luther King Jr. started humbly in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It is where King was baptized as a child, and also where he listened to his father, Martin Luther King Sr., preach on Sunday mornings.

After several trial runs in which King Jr. led sermons, he was ordained a minister at age 19. King Jr. and King Sr. would go on to co-pastor the church until King Jr.’s death on April 4, 1968.

1964 — Cassius Clay defeats Sonny Liston
Cassius Clay was the underdog going into his second fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Two years before, Liston had earned the heavyweight title after defeating Floyd Patterson. Leading up to the fight, Clay taunted and teased Liston but lived up to the hype. The bout, which lasted six rounds, ended in a technical knockout, and Clay, later known to the world as Muhammad Ali, being crowned the world heavyweight champion.

1975 — Death of Elijah Muhammad
Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, died in Chicago after suffering from heart disease, bronchitis, asthma and diabetes. He was 77.

In 1931, Muhammad converted to Islam after meeting with Wallace D. Fard, a black Muslim who catered to the needs of African-American communities. After converting, Muhammad took up Fard’s torch, continuing his teachings. Although Muhammad was jailed in 1942 for evading the draft, he returned to preach of the Nation of Islam, becoming the most powerful face of Black Islam along the way.

1978 — Death of Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., retired Air Force general and the first black to achieve the rank of four-star general, died of a heart attack three weeks after retiring from the Air Force. He was 58.

James attended the Tuskegee Institute, where he became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a highly decorated group of black fighter pilots who weren’t allowed to mingle with white military personnel.

James participated in several combat missions and is credited for leading the Bolo MiG sweep of 21 Communist aircraft, which was the highest kill total of any Vietnam air mission at the time.

1989 — Mike Tyson wins heavyweight championship
Boxer Mike Tyson returned for his first fight in eight months, beating opponent Frank Bruno by knockout in the fifth round and becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

1991 — First African-American woman to die in combat in the Persian Gulf War
Adrienne Mitchell, first African-American woman to die in combat in the Persian Gulf War, is killed in her military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

1998 — “I Believe I Can Fly” wins Grammy awards
R. Kelly’s hit single “I Believe I Can Fly” wins three Grammys — best male R&B vocal, best song written for TV or a movie and best R&B song — at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards.

The song was written in 1996 and featured in the popular film Space Jam. It was included in R. Kelly’s R., released in 1998.

On this day in black history: Smokey Robinson is born, John Singleton nominated for an Oscar, Tuskegee Airmen are here and more Black History Month: The Undefeated Edition Feb. 19

1940 – Happy birthday, Smokey Robinson
William “Smokey” Robinson is born in 1940 in Detroit. Robinson was ranked 20th on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers, and was once called America’s “greatest living poet” by Bob Dylan. He wrote some of R&B’s most classic love songs by groups such as The Temptations and The Supremes. He sang hits such as “Cruisin,” “Tears of a Clown” and “Ooo Baby Baby.”

1942 – Tuskegee Airmen initiated
The Tuskegee Airmen are initiated into the armed forces. They were the first African-American flying unit in the U.S. military, and flew 1,578 missions and won more than 850 medals.

1992 – John Singleton nominated for Oscar for Boyz N the Hood
John Singleton is nominated for his debut film Boyz N the Hood (1991). He was the youngest African-American and, at 24, the youngest person to be nominated for the Academy Award for best director. Singleton was also nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay.

2002 – Vonetta Flowers wins gold
Bobsledder Vonetta Flowers becomes the first black person to win a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Flowers started as a track and field star, but eventually retired from the sport and switched to bobsledding.