Dimmed Brilliance: Nelsan Ellis in Secretariat
I 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.
Two 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.
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.
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.
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