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Dimmed Brilliance: Nelsan Ellis in Secretariat

NelsanEllisI saw a screening Tuesday night in Chicago for the feature film Secretariat, to be released on October 8. When I got an invitation to the screening and looked up the credits to discover that Nelsan Ellis would be co-starring in the film, I was sold. By far, Nelsan Ellis is my favorite actor to watch on TV these days with his True Blood character “Lafayette”. His brilliant and charismatic performance brings layers and depth to a character many people in the mainstream wouldn’t have an affinity for—a gay black man who is also a drug dealer. I’ve loved his character from the beginning, and I find his screen time often livens up an otherwise boring episode (especially this season). If Lafayette were a real person, we’d be hanging out constantly (though that “hooker” talk would have to cease). Obviously my adoration for this actor is strong, and I’ve been hoping to see him shine on the big screen, which is why I was saddened by his appearance in Secretariat.


Secretariat_PosterTwo things set up my sad disappointment in Nelsan’s role in Secretariat. One; it’s a Disney film about a race horse, and two; it’s set in the late-1960s to mid 1970s. This combination generally means that a black character, in a predominantly white film, has little to no chance of being a multi-dimensional character, and this film is no exception.

Secretariat is about the legendary horse of the same name and the woman who owned him (actually, it’s mostly about her). Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, an upper-middle class housewife, mother of four, and the heir to a horse farm. At the top of the film, Penny’s mother has passed away and she, along with her husband and kids, returns to her childhood home to find her frail father and a farm in jeopardy. With an admirable display of woman power and independence, Penny relocates to Virginia away from her family, and makes some bold business decisions that puts her promising horse in the limelight. Surrounding Penny is a loyal assistant, a horse trainer (played by John Malkovich- who shines and pleases without fail), the horse’s jockey, and Nelsan Ellis’s character Eddie, the horse’s groom.

NelsanEllis_Secretariat

Nelsan Ellis as Eddie Sweat

The first image of Eddie is from Penny’s point of view as she’s driving up to her parent’s large Virginian estate. The manager of the stables, a mean, formidable white man, is yelling angrily at Eddie who, in turn, retreats a little, bows his head and says something to the effect of “yessuh”. This is a character foreshadowing for both men. Eddie’s first dialogue scene is at the funeral for Penny’s mother. I braced myself as he spoke, his mood somber as he mourned the death of his employer. With a movie that’s set in the 1960s south, there’s an expectation for the cinematic portrayal of black people that I think makes us all cringe as we anticipate their first spoken words on screen. Barely making eye contact, Eddie offers Penny condolences.  Almost as if speaking to a child, she thanks him for his service to her parents stating something like “Daddy said you can hear the horse’s thoughts through your hands.” Yep, he has magic hands. At one point in the movie, even as others are skeptical of Secretariat’s abilities, Eddie says that he can “feel a fire in him” and urges them to keep their faith in the horse.

Throughout the film, Ellis’s Eddie smiles a lot and says very few words. He’s unbearably simple, aiming to please, upbeat at every moment, and stays pretty much on that single note at all times. I think he was even smiling as he slept on a cot in the stables outside of Secretariat’s gate. The only scene in the movie where that one note peaked on the audio graph was when Eddie walked into a race track stadium and, yelling into vast emptiness, exclaimed “Kentucky, you about to see somethin’ you ain’t nevah seen be-foh!” talking, of course, about Secretariat. The sound of muffled giggles, and a couple of crickets, somehow seeped through the heavy and awkward silence of the theater audience.

I couldn’t help but feel saddened by the waste of such tremendous talent. Several things factor into a performance beyond an actor’s talent, most significantly the script and direction. I can’t say much for how Nelsan Ellis was directed, because I wasn’t on the set to witness it. However it’s pretty apparent that there wasn’t much there, script-wise, for Ellis to work with. His solo in the racetrack stadium seemed forced as if, at some point, someone said “we should throw Eddie a bone, give him a dramatic arc.” Unfortunately they didn’t come up with much. Eddie was “magical negro” all the way. His loyalty to the main (white) character, his conformity in all things, his seeming lack of autonomy, his aim to please, his lack of life outside of the main character’s world, his quiet wisdom despite his simplicity—all of these things are trademark.  Even Penny’s assistant, a middle-aged white woman named “Miss Ham”, while unfailingly loyal and seemingly lacked a personal life, was intelligent, decisive, and at least two-dimensional.

Eddie Sweat with Edwin Bogucki, the sculptor who immortalized Secretariat, his jockey and Eddie together in bronze.

Eddie Sweat with Edwin Bogucki, the sculptor who immortalized him, Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte together in bronze.

Let’s keep in mind that this story is based on real lives. The real man, Eddie Sweat, has been (according to Wiki) on the cover of Jet and Ebony magazine, and is the subject of the book The Horse God Built: Secretariat, His Groom, Their Legacy. A quick Google search reveals a widespread admiration and appreciation for Mr. Sweat and his work. Clearly none of that translated to the big screen. And it’s a damn shame that the man who spent the most time with the greatest race horse in history has been reduced to a Hollywood cliché.

Sergio, in his post yesterday, posed a very good question about black actors’ motives for taking on roles like this. You can join that discussion here. As for Secretariat, I say skip it, unless you want to take your family to an over-polished Disney film with predictable sports movie suspense…and a magical negro. If you’re a Nelsan Ellis fan, avoid it like the plague for the dimmed brilliance is much too unbearable to watch.

26 comments to Dimmed Brilliance: Nelsan Ellis in Secretariat

  • Sergio

    Oh well I guess I’ll throw away my invite for a screening of it. Not like as if I was all that excited to see it in the first place anyway. I take it you went to the screening at the ICON theater.

  • Art McGee

    “Kentucky, you about to see somethin’ you ain’t nevah seen be-foh!”

    Can’t…stop…laughing…

  • Tony

    Did you care for his performance in THE SOLOIST. Many folks forget he was in that film and had a large part.

  • Carla

    What is it that you do expect from a film like this based on a true story set during a time when Black people had to act ‘less than’ to get along? He wasn’t playing the ‘house slave’ on a plantation. He was doing his job (probably felt lucky to have one) and living his life.

    As far as Black actors taking on film roles like this….do you want them to work or not? Until films featuring Black characters that reflect the whole of our existence/consciousness….this is what we get.

    • Obsidienne

      We cannot allow the cinematic representation of black people to rewrite history. Eddie Sweat wasn’t a man who was just doing his job, and happy to have one, he is- as I stated in my post- the man who worked the most with the greatest race horse in history. I’m sure he had all the human complexities that were given to the main character, but that wasn’t shown. The reduction of this character to what I described is wrong- Disney film or not.

  • Carla

    “Until the lion has his own storyteller, the tale will always favor the hunter.”

  • A broader question to ask (and also in response to Sergio’s post) is not why actors keep taking roles like this, but rather why films like these are still being made? Or, maybe SHOULD films with characters like these still be made? And that’s where it starts to get slippery.

    It’s easy to understand why any actor would take any role, regardless of what the role is – especially if it’s an actor who isn’t been given lots of opportunities. They have to work and make money.

    To even ask the question suggests some sense of honor or duty on their part to the rest of “us” not to take these roles; dare I say an “obligation,” something which I brought up in a previous post; and, given the bulk of the responses, most were averse to the word.

    We should instead be asking ourselves why we obviously don’t think they should take these kinds of roles, and wrestle with those reasons, as opposed to putting the onus solely on them, because films with similar characters, or characters that can be readily labeled with one of a few racial throwbacks, will continue to be made, and black actors will continue to fill those roles, no matter how brilliant the actors are. It’s a paycheck.

    • Obsidienne

      Yeah, I think it’s well understood that work is work, and actors need to get paid (no matter what color they are). I certainly have no interest in complaining about that. Sergio’s question went further into their (the actors’) thought process and awareness of how “magical negro” roles are perceived, which is why I linked to his article. It makes for good discussion, I think.

      Your obligation post was on point, and I have a feeling that we’re going to revisit that topic a lot here. I’m not upset with Nelsan Ellis in anyway, I don’t feel like he has a greater obligation to me, or the community, than to himself. I’m just disappointed in the way his character was portrayed given: a)his ability to take good material (which was obviously missing in this movie) and make it superb, and b)the real life Eddie Sweat’s legacy.

      • Sergio

        Exactly. My question was not so much why actors play those roles, but rather do they realize what those roles are and what they represent? I recall Will Smith saying that he wanted to play the role in Bagger Vance because he saw the character as “Jesus Christ”

        Of course we saw differently. The ULTIMATE Magic Negro who literally appears out of nowhere with no identity or storyline of his own to help the Matt Damon win some golf championship and to disspear into the mist again. And in the segregated South of the 1930′s no less! The message was clear. Instead of black people being loud and angry all the time bithcing about this and that, why can’t you people be more like Smith? Quiet, helpful, always cheerful, willing to help white people in their time of need without even asking for a thing because it’s the Christian thing to do and you’ll get your reward in heaven.

        Not even Jesus Christ himself was like that.

  • Blutopaz

    I haven’t seen Secretaria but i get what you are saying. Your post reminds me of the HBO film Something the Lord Made with Mos Def. I was blown away by his performance, because he portrayed this real life person as a humble, cautious yet gifted human being who quietly helped change history while forever being reminded to stay in his place. It would have been easy for him to come across as you’ve noted Mr. Sweat was played by Ellis, and I don’t know if it was a strong combo of STLM’s writing, direction and Mos’ acting talent. I felt like i was watching a Black man placed in yet another submissive environment, but his character was brilliant while carefully keeping an eye on crazy white folks, a very nuanced, powerful job by Mos that could have been a caricature. He really deserved an Emmy for that role.

  • politicallyincorrect

    what movies do you guys on this site like? the only ones you like are these lame indies that appeal to your bourgie ideals. I am glad I have Netflix and didn’t waste money going to the movies to see the horrible films you recommend.

  • politicallyincorrect

    I like the news but I will no longer listen to the film recommendations

  • CarlaP

    I’m a different Carla. I went to an advanced screening of the movie because I think Nelsan Ellis is a nice piece of eye candy. Yep shallow. But I knew it was going to be crap before I arrived at the cinema. Hello, it’s a Disney movie about horses. The trailer provides enough derivative pap to make a judgment call. It was going to suck whether they included Eddie Sweat or not. Nelsan is still a cutie though.

  • Nelsan Ellis

    You’re not a black actor in hollywood, I think before you make sweeping assumptions, research our plight. I brought as much as I was allowed to a role that was only- the dude taking care of the horse. You should talk about the powers that be not the black actors who have to take certain undesirable roles to feed our families.

    • Obsidienne

      Because this is the internet, and there’s really no way for me to verify your identity, I’ll take your word for it that you are, indeed, Nelsan Ellis. With that said, and with all due respect, I think you’ve completely misunderstood my post.

      For one, I never made a sweeping assumption about you. Nowhere in my article did I really even criticize you negatively, in fact, I did just the opposite. The entire premise of my post was that you were given a substandard role. Additionally, I criticized the filmmakers for reducing Eddie Sweat’s role in Secretariat’s victories to a Hollywood cliche. Eddie Sweat was more than just “the dude taking care of the horse”. So, essentially The Secretariat managed to diminish the talents and contributions of two black men who deserve better.

      You should talk about the powers that be not the black actors who have to take certain undesirable roles to feed our families.

      Again, I think I’ve done that with my article, and in subsequent comments following the article. Shadow and Act is dedicated to questioning the powers that be which is why we consistently: a). promote black actors and filmmakers that challenge the Hollywood power structure, and b). discuss ways that we (many of us filmmakers ourselves) can break free of the powers that be and create a more positive industry for black people. One of the ways we can achieve this is by voicing our displeasure in seeing black people portrayed negatively on screen using a forum that will, hopefully, reach the right people.

      Thank you for your response, and I hope I was able to clarify my position for you.

  • Irene Morales Ward

    To Nelsan Ellis -

    I was moved to tears by your performance. In a film created intentionally to focus on the relationship between horse and owner, you gave a life and depth that NO ONE else in the film had. Not Diane Lane, not John Malkovich…just you! Whether or not you felt the director did not allow you to expand on your role, after seeing it twice, I was compelled to see you as the main character alongside Secretariat. Your character seemed to give everyone faith when they were struggling to find it – even Secretariat. Your connection was palpable and never for an instant did I think you were acting – which I cannot say about any of the other actors on the screen.

    Kudos to you for a tremendous performance! You have great talent!

  • Arthur Vendalis

    You could at least get the name of the film right.

  • Obsidienne, I didn’t read this post when it first hit, yet, today, from the jump, your words were concise and very understandable. And, the post was very well written (excellent).

    I know you felt an – somewhat – obligation to address the “questions” of those who disgreed with your observations, but I am here to tell you that all of their concerns had already been addressed in your post and your link to other posts. I know you know that, but I had to say it on record. There was no confusion in regards to your point of view.

    I guess I am saying some folks will read – in their mind – what they want to (something that’s not there).

    You were not hating, disapproving of the actor taking the role, nor saying they should not take such roles. And you did say there are many dynamics that play into what we see on the screen, ie, script, direction, and the production company (their bread and butter).

    And, having said that. The actor may even get involved with a project – and even read “a” script, but as Sergio pointed out, the final product is out of their control.

    So Obsidienne, you did good – very good. And I doubt that was the real Nelsan Ellis’s comment. I think it’s safe to say he is not that dimwitted.

  • Obsidienne

    Thanks Carey, much appreciated.