His legacy will continue to live on, as his roles as Lafayette and the other Black men that he portrayed on screen give a voice for the countless Black folks who existed.
Sobering news has hit the media world: actor and playwright Nelsan Ellis passed away on Saturday, July 8 at the age of 39. A Black actor best known for his role as Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s True Blood, Ellis’ legacy doesn’t just impact those who have witnessed his rising (and underrated acting career), but also those who felt seen by the roles that he took on.
Ellis was born in 1977 in Harvey, Illinois. When he was 15, he moved from Alabama (where he and his siblings were living at the time with an aunt) live back in Chicago. He joined the Marines at 17 but quit soon after, moving instead to study at Illinois State University and eventually obtaining his BFA from Julliard.
In Backstage back in 2009, Ellis noted how important identity was for him in the pursuit of a career in acting:
The studies were so intense and the institution is so white, and I’m a black man from the South with a very specific vernacular and palate. I felt like an alien, and I struggled the first couple of years. But it transformed who I am as an actor and a person.
The role that Ellis is best known for is one that ultimately brought him into the public spotlight and has a special place in the heart of fans. Known for its Southern charm and supernatural plotlines, True Blood allowed Ellis a place to shine in his portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds. Southern, Black, and unapologetically queer – it was in this role that fans witnessed Ellis bring a mix of wit, courage, humor, and undoubtedly realness to the otherwise majority-white casting (save for a few Black and brown actors like co-star Rutina Westley.)
In a role that lasted seven seasons, Ellis went on to win various awards, including Two Satellite Awards, an Ewwy for best supporting dramatic actor, and a NewNowNext Award for actor on the brink of fame.
Following the success of True Blood, it seemed like Hollywood didn’t truly recognize the variety of Ellis’ talent. He had roles in several films – Get On Up, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Little Boxes, The Butler, and The Help – but it always seemed like he was just getting started. Like many Black actors and creatives, Ellis’ talent didn’t translate to the same kind of opportunities that white actors were given.
In his best-known role, Ellis allowed for identities that are often vastly overlooked – Black Southern queerness – to take center stage on a show that often struggled to give positive representation to Black characters at all. For many, Lafayette was imperfect, messy, and unapologetic in the way that he lived and interacted with his coworkers and neighbors in Bon Temps, Louisiana.
There’s no doubt that Ellis will be missed greatly by his family, friends, and fans. His legacy will continue to live on, as his roles as Lafayette and the other Black men that he portrayed on screen give a voice for the countless Black folks who existed – both in the present and the past – struggling to carve out space for themselves to live freely.
Ellis leaves behind a son, Breon, his grandmother, his father, and seven siblings.
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