It’s hard enough finding straight people of color — including Black folk — on TV and film, never mind non-hetero depictions. Here’s a thumbnail sketch roundup of positive portrayals. In the interest of being thankful for small favors, let us acknowledge that pitiful as it is, some progress has been made.
True Blood, the HBO hit pitting vampires versus werewolves with humans stuck in the middle, against a rural Louisiana backdrop, saw a gay Black man not only as a principal character, but also one with strong dimension.
Nelsan Ellis (who, by the by, plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2013’s The Butler) plays pragmatic hard-a** with a heart of gold Lafayette Reynolds. Lafayette is a wry, dry, tough-as-nails — and a flaming queen — short-order cook at a small, backwoods town’s social hub Merlotte’s Bar & Grill. In short, a true piece of work. On whose bad side it behooves you not to find yourself.
In Spartacus: Blood & Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, handsome, strapping hunk Antonio Te Maioha, a Maori from New Zeeland, is tragically ill-fated gladiator Barca. He’s highly skilled with sword and shield, an agreeable enough sort as long as you don’t get too chummy — after all, one of you, on some hot dusty day in front of cheering, bloodthirsty revelers, may have to kill the other.
Barca holds himself with quiet dignity. Brother gladiators snigger behind his back about his sexuality. Nobody, though, is stupid enough to say anything to his face. In fact, he’s such an effective killer that, after the ritual combat, after the crowd’s gone home and you’re back in the barracks, it was a good idea not to bother him unless he spoke to you first.
On The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which aired on HBO in 2009, delightfully salty BK (Desmond Tutu), owner-proprietor of the beauty salon next door to Precious’ detective agency, gave the show bright, off-beat energy. It is a kick to watch him interact with Grace, her terminally officious secretary and sidekick who’s baffled by the mere existence of a somewhat ladylike gentleman. Especially when he curtly acquaints her with a world outside the social convention to which she is comfortably accustomed.
Feeble as it was, NBC at least took a half-assed stab at giving viewers a lesbian in Knight Rider, a 2008 remake of the old show featuring Kitt the Talking Car. Sydney Poitier (the historic actor’s daughter) is FBI Agent Carrie Rivai, a hard-nosed, love ’em-and-leave ’em type who, in the first frames of the pilot, rolls out of bed with a gorgeous blonde to whom she barely gives an afterthought. The show folded fast, owing to useless scripts. And the character never got developed. The idea, though, was a good one.
In the movie Precious, there’s a fleshed-out look at dynamics and dimensions of a harmonious relationship between Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) and Katherine (Kimberly Russell), a pair of laid-back professionals who take the fat, homely, domestically abused heroine in. And whose caring kindness helps her believe in herself.
It’s telling that Precious, with no port in the storm, having fled her mother’s raggedy apartment, enters Ms. Rain and Katherine’s nicely appointed household talking to herself about how she ain’t realize Ms. Rain was “that way.” “They is straight-up dykes,” she muses. By the time the couple get done treating her more like a human being than her own mother or anyone else ever has, she couldn’t care what they do when their bedroom door is closed.
And consider the contemporary 1996 classic Set It Off with Queen Latifah, hellified as ghetto lesbian-cum-bank robber Cleo. As Cleo lavished libidinous attention on hot-a** Ursula (1960s TV star Janet MacLachlan’s daughter, Samantha MacLachlan), Queen Latifah was acting her butt off.
There’s also floating around — look for a copy at the library, or rent it from Netflix — 2004’s Brother to Brother. It’s a brilliant indie drama about a gay youth with no sense of self who crosses paths with a Harlem Renaissance author who has outlived his days of glory. Roger Robinson plays the author, Anjanue Ellis is Zora Neale Hurston and Anthony Mackie plays the youth. The richly compelling dram makes for one memorable viewing experience.
Sonja Sohn on HBO’s The Wire gave subtle, sardonic strength to Detective Kima Greggs, a cop who, like her colleagues, saw her love life go straight to hell behind her dedication to the job.
When someone films, say, the life story of James Baldwin, maybe American cinema will turn an important corner. Perhaps in another 100 years. Meanwhile, this’ll have to do, the occasional character of substance.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
Top photo: Nelsan Ellis as Lafayette Reynolds in HBO’s True Blood
Photo courtesy of truebloodguide.com