By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
I was not too familiar with Nelsan Ellis’ work, but I know that he made a great impression as the male cross-dressing short order cook on HBO’s “True Blood.” This show ran from 2008 until 2014, and during those years, it received many awards, including those from the Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA. Ellis played Lafayette Reynolds in this series. He also played Bobby Byrd in the 2014 James Brown biopic “Get On Up;” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in “The Butler” and as a waiter in the 2011 film “The Help.”
When news of Ellis’ death hit the media, most raved about his talents and the fact that his sudden death—which was reported by his manager—due to heart failure at such a young age was hard to accept.
And while his television and movie credits are admirable, given his short time as an actor, I recently saw a Netflix movie in which Ellis played the husband and father of young teen that was very impressive. I noted as I was watching that this was the guy from “True Blood.” The name of the movie was “Little Boxes,” and it dealt with an interracial couple who moved from New York to a small town in suburban Washington State. This movie touched on issues of race, class and privilege, as the teen son tried to assimilate with his white classmates. The wife Gina, played by Melanie Lynskey, tried to fit in with her new professor colleagues and Ellis, who played Mack, worked on continuing his career as a writer, who is not too certain about the move and the house that his wife has purchased for them.
The themes in the film struck me, because the son Clark, played by Armani Jackson, was looked upon by his white female classmates as sort of a science project. They tried to be hip when they were around him. Everything was hip hop music and stereotypical talking and gestures, and they even referred to Clark as their “Black friend.”
The rights to “Little Boxes” were reportedly one of the biggest deals out of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, with Netflix acquiring the movie for around $1.5 million. While bingeing on “True Blood” and checking out “Get On Up” are good choices, if you want to see more of Ellis’ work, this movie is a great selection, as well.
Wikipedia states that Ellis was born in Harvey, Illinois, and when he and his siblings were younger, their mother, who was a single parent after her divorce, was upset over her brother’s death and could no longer care for them. Ellis and his siblings became a ward of the state and were sent to Bessemer, Alabama, to live with their grandmother. Eventually Ellis moved back to Illinois to live with an aunt, and he graduated from Thornridge High School in Dolton in 1997. He also attended Oxford University and Columbia College in Chicago before graduating from the famed Juilliard School.
Ellis died on July 8 in Los Angeles, due to heart failure, and the Hollywood Reporter shared comments from his family about the circumstances surrounding his death. Reportedly, Ellis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for years, and after many stints in rehab, he attempted to withdraw from alcohol use on his own. This caused a blood infection, which affected his kidneys and eventually his heart failed. Through his manager, Emily Gerson Saines, by talking about the events leading up to Ellis’ death, the family wanted to try to help others who are struggling with addictions.
Ellis is survived by his grandmother, Alex Brown; his father, Tommie Lee Thompson; and his son, Breon Ellis. He is also survived by his siblings Lakeeia Thomson, Tommie Lee Thompson, Babon Ellis, Maurice Turne, Tianna Thompson, Shaentika Beard and Yvonne Ellis and aunt Tartheaia Thompson.