The entertainment world lost two standout performers this past week, as actors Nelsan Ellis and Ji-Tu Cumbuka died within days of each other.
Cumbuka’s July 4 demise was reported by his niece, Amber Holifield on her Facebook page. He was 77 years old and had been hospitalized in Atlanta after complications related to vascular disease.
Born in Helena, Ala., circa 1940, the six-foot five-inch former athlete was given the Swahili name Ji-Tu (giant) Cumbuka (to remember) by his grandmother. Pursuing acting at Texas Southern University, Los Angeles City College, and Columbia College, he got his big break in the 1968 thriller “Uptight,” by barging into director Jules Dassin’s office to demand an audition.
Riding the crest of what came to be known as the “Blaxploitation” genre, marketed towards urban audiences of the 1970s, he carved out a motion picture and television career and amassed some 81 credits on IMDb. His more notable roles included Blacula (1972), Mandingo (1975), the 1977 miniseries “Roots,” and “Harlem Nights” (1989).
In his later years, Cumbuka turned his attention to philanthropy, and founded the nonprofit Help Somebody Foundation and Ministries (https://www.sombodyhelpji-tu.org/). In 2011, he published a memoir incorporating the Swahili translation of his name, “A Giant to Remember: The Black Actor in Hollywood.”
Lafayette Reynolds, the character immortalized by Nelsan Ellis in the HBO supernatural soap opera “True Blood,” was introduced (and killed off) in the first and second volume of the “Southern Vampire Mysteries” eight-book series by Charlaine Harris upon which the TV show is based. When the series aired, the artistry that Ellis projected on the small screen was such that the flamboyantly gay short-order cook and drug (vampire blood) dealer at Merlotte’s Bar became a fan favorite, and continued to be a staple through the entire seven-season run.
Born in Harvey, Ill., and reared in Birmingham, Ala., Ellis earned a degree from the prestigious Juilliard School of Drama in 2004. By 2008, he’d secured the role of Lafayette by channeling his memories of his mother and the mega-pop singer Rihanna.
In an era in which vampire based spin offs abounded, “True Blood” stood apart by using its Southern Gothic foundation as a launching point for metaphors on pop culture confusion. The vampire members of its cast debated on whether to “come out of the coffin (closet),” turning the show into an allegory for equal rights and tolerance. Although Lafayette was human, his was an entertaining addendum to the faeries, shape shifters, werewolves, witches, and other supernatural creatures in the magical realm of Bon Temps, the Louisiana hamlet where the drama of “True Blood” plays out.
Although his performance as Lafayette may well be the highlight of his career, Ellis had numerous portrayals in his career, including James Brown’s contemporary Bobby Byrd in 2014’s “Get on Up,” and the Rev. Martin Luther King in Lee Daniels’ historical drama, “The Butler.”
Nelsan Ellis struggled for many years with alcohol and substance abuse. This may have contributed to the heart failure (induced by alcohol withdrawal) listed as his cause of death. He leaves behind a son, Breon, his grandmother and father, and seven siblings.