True Blood star Nelsan Ellis has died at the age of 39. As The Advocate's Daniel Reynolds noted in his tribute:
"Ellis, an actor, was best known for his role of Lafayette Reynolds, a gay chef in the HBO series True Blood," he writes. "He won a 2008 Satellite Award for his portrayal of the character. The long-running vampire drama, [Ellis] — a flamboyant employee of the restaurant Merlotte's — was unafraid to stand up to oppression from either human or supernatural foes. A clip of his character confronting homophobic patrons is now being widely shared on social media."
Robert Jones, Jr. aka Son of Baldwin posted on Facebook: "I'm in a state of utter shock, fam. Today, we lost actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his role as 'Lafayette' in the HBO series, True Blood. He was only 39 years old. Ellis also co-starred in Get On Up, the James Brown biopic. Devastated. Below is my favorite Nelsan Ellis scene from True Blood. Rest in peace, brother."
Below is a transcription of the scene:
Arlene [standing outside the restaurant kitchen talking to Lafayette who is inside the kitchen cooking]: Oh, come on now. It's not worth it.
Lafayette: What did they say? Arlene: He said...the burger....
Lafayette: What did they say, Arlene!?
Arlene: He said the burger might have AIDS. [Lafayette removes earrings, removes apron, and grabs plate of food]
Arlene: Lafayette! Oh, fudge! [Lafayette walks to the table.]
Lafayette: 'Scuse me. Who ordered the hamburger, [puts plate on table] with AIDS?
Royce: I ordered the hamburger deluxe.
Lafayette: In this restaurant a hamburger deluxe come with french fries, lettuce, tomato, mayo, AND AIDS! DO ANYBODY GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?!
Royce: Yeah! I'm an American, and I got a say in who makes my food!
Lafayette: Well baby it's to late for that. F*gg*ts been breeding your cows, raising your chickens, even brewing your beer long before I walked my sexy ass up in this mother f***er. Everything on your god damn table got AIDS.
Royce: You still ain't making me eat no AIDS burger.
Lafayette: Well all you gotta do is say hold the AIDS. Here. [licks hamburger bun] Eat it. [jams in Royce's face] [Lafayette proceeds to kick everyone's ass at the table.]
Lafayette: B*tch, you come in my house, you gon' eat my food the way I fuckin' make it! Do you understand me!? [Lafayette throws the plate at Royce.]
Lafayette: Tip your waitress.
[Lafayette sashays away giving Jason Stackhouse, who is sitting at another table, a high-five before returning to the kitchen. Jason snaps his fingers in gay formation.]
Watch the scene below and afterwards read what eight prominent HIV Activists say the impact it had and how it affected them.
Benjamin M. Adams: "I've only experienced this kind of stigma one time in my life. One time, a store clerk who was aware of my status refused to touch the five dollar bill that I used to pay for my order. He said 'Just leave it on the table.' Unfortunately, this prejudice still persists in pockets of the nation. HIV patients could learn from Ellis' fearless example."
Brenden Shucart: "Every young faggot (especially those of us living with HIV) has to learn pretty quickly to embrace a sort of fearless gallows humor —a bout themselves and about the world —or they are likely to go insane. Nelsan Ellis's Lafayette Reynolds embodied that fearless gallows humor. "After it's first season — which was a total work of art—True Blood starts going downhill fast. But I never missed an episode, because every scene with Lafayette still managed to be gold, still managed to teach me something about how to carry myself through the world with my head held high. The famous AIDS Burger scene is probably the quintessential moment of fearless faggotry in the whole series. Even watching it now I want to leap into the air, fists a-pumping, because this is the sort of role model young queers need to see reflected back at them — strong, brave, unselfconscious, unapologetically themselves — that are in painfully short supply on television today. "Nelsan Ellis literally helped to shape what it means to be gay for a whole generation of faggots. His passing is a great loss. He will be missed."
Kenny Neal Shults: "I remember watching the beginning of that scene and thinking, does that even happen anymore? Growing up in the 80’s and doing HIV prevention work since the 90s, I sometimes get the sense that we are past this type of sharing silverware ignorance. But then Lafayette walks out into the restaurant, walks up to the guy, asks, 'Who ordered the hamburger with AIDS' and I could feel the panic rising in my throat.
"Then, through a seamless blend of wit, brute strength, and fabulosity he schools these assholes and I begin to sob. It was fictional, yes, and perhaps even a little far fetched, but I remember thinking, yeah, that’s right, this definitely still happens. Living in NYC can make it difficult to remember that the deep South I left behind so long ago (Louisiana, in fact) hasn’t changed all that much, even after a couple of decades. That remark and those views expressed by the characters who ordered the burger were actually the most realistic part of the scene.
"Seeing Lafayette’s championing of a seemingly archaic gay experience was so moving, especially because that actor was not a gay man, and I remembered that it’s models like these that make this experience real. The show wasn’t trying to depict daily reality necessarily – I mean, it was about vampires after all – it was showing us what the world could be. When I see young gays, lesbians and trans people these days I am reminded that as we grow, and as art reflects our desires for a better world it empowers people to take the kind of action it models. Thank you Nelsan. Your contribution will not be forgotten."
Damon L. Jacobs: "Always eloquent and bold, Nelsan Ellis's acting managed to personify the components of true bravery. The now classic 'AIDS Burger' scene exemplifies what it means to be strong, vulnerable, and when necessary, to act up and fight back. I hope that we can look to his memory as a way to embrace and express the passion and love that is within us all."
Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad: "I was devastated to hear about the passing of Nelsan Ellis, his iconic role as "Lafayette" on True Blood has impacted the way HIV-related stigma is addressed on the screen. From totally disrupting the narrative of fragility to confront the patrons in the restaurant by showing how ridiculous their assertion was that because he was queer they'd contract AIDS through food."
Rick Guasco: "It wasn’t until after he had died that I learned Nelsan Ellis was born in the south suburbs of Chicago, which is where I grew up. You don’t have to go to the Deep South, where True Blood is set, to find the kind of ignorance and fear that Nelsan’s character Lafayette encountered. Nelsan and Lafayette were fierce examples of how to confront stigma wherever we find it."
Bruce Richman: "I was diagnosed five years before that came out, and still closeted about my HIV to some people. Lafayette was one of those characters that you look up to and say 'damn if I had just a little bit of what they have!' Now that I’m out and proud, sometimes I do have a little bit!"
Cole Hayes: "It's uncomfortable to say but when True Blood first came out, I was a young lesbian living on my own for the first time. I was hooked from the very beginning, it was unlike any other show I'd seen before. The show catered to many different groups and touched on taboo subjects. Lafayette Reynolds was one of the strongest characters. I wasn't sure what would happen when Lafayette heard what they had said and went to confront these guys. Surely, he'd lose whatever fight he was looking to pick. That's not what happened though.
“'All you had to say was hold the AIDS' he told the customer before smashing the burger bun in his face. It was a small scene but it said a lot. Here was this gay black guy, living in the deep south, constantly under threat of harassment but he didn't care. He was an LGBT character we could all root for. Strong, loud and proud and that strength was definitely something that brought me back to the show. Some people might not understand why representation in TV and movies matters but it does. For me it wasn't about a character in a television show, it was about the message. Be you, be proud and shut the homophobes down!"