First off, just let me say this. I love black women. There is nothing in this world, to me, as interesting, complex, beautiful or off-the-chart engaging as a black woman who knows what she wants and knows how to make it happen. Maybe it’s cause I’m a Mama’s Boy with one great Mama, who had a great Mama, has some great sisters, and also raised a great daughter.
Let’s just put that out there first.
Secondly, I love black women on TV. Maybe it’s because they have to make so much with—so often—so little, but it’s true: nothing gets me more excited pop culture-wise than a sista on TV commanding space, emoting well, turning a phrase and just doing the damn thing. Just some names, so you know where I’m coming from, cause I’m not just talking the Grand Diva, World-famous Diahann Carrolls of the world (though, anyone who knows me knows I worship the ground that Lady walks on, if ONLY because of a lil movie called Claudine, but I digress…) or my future wife Regina King; no I’m talking about sistas like Nicki Micheaux and Lorraine Toussaint and S. Epatha Merkerson and Aisha Hinds and Aunjanue Ellis and Adina Porter, just to name a few, these sistas who you might find as readily on the New York stage as you might guest-starring on a TV show. (Guest-starring being the operative word. Other than Regina King—who’s working it over on Southland—there are unfortunately only a handful of sistas playing leads or co-leads on TV shows: sadly Law & Order is no more but there’s Jada Pinkett Smith (Hawthorne), Chandra Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy, and JJ Abrams has cast a black couple at the center of Undercovers, his upcoming sexy new spy show, with British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw starring opposite Boris Kodjoe.)
But this isn’t so much about the numbers today. I’ll leave that to the NAACP and their racist greeting cards, it’s about how I can usually find something to love and vibe about a sista on TV. Well, except one: She’s a character on True Blood, and her name is Tara.
When I first encountered True Blood last summer, a bit after the original hype had died down, I watched the entire first season in two days. And I was floored. Not just because I love vampire stories. But mostly because it was by Alan Ball, who wrote and created, in my mind, two of the most overrated, flawed pieces of pop culture dishonesty ever in the history of movies and television: TV show Six Feet Under and the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. I can’t think of any screen work of the past twenty years that have made my teeth, soul and head all hurt more than those two. I thought both were phony at their core, female-hating on many-levels, overwroughtly mean and yet ludicrously imperious about themselves, like the class bully who secretly wants to be the valedictorian. True Blood, however, was a sorta revelation: scampish, funky and nasty, trashily self-conscious in the best way, sexy, and willing to go places I hadn’t seen before, even if its core metaphor for social otherness, its “Big Idea,” if you will—vampires, fighting for their rights, coming out of the closet, so to speak, like stand-in gays or black folks—was a tad wobbly. Whatever. I enjoyed the hell out of the show. That is, until Tara came on screen.
Screechy of voice, doing a Southern accent that sounded like no Southern accent that I’d ever heard, popping her eyes like she was in a silent movie, poking out her lips like her momma wouldn’t give her no ice cream: I had NO idea who this woman was supposed to be, only that she was stranger, and way less recognizable as a human, than most of the vampires, who’d had their humanity taken away ages ago! It hurt even more that she was cousins to Lafayette, a character we TRULY hadn’t ever seen before on television (even though, as my buddy says, at heart he really is a typical black male TV character: a drug dealer). Lafayette’s sorta cross-dressing, probably bisexual, libertine candor gave True Blood a truly bloody heart to fall in love with; his one-liners elicited laugh-out-loudness, his wisdom transcended Magic Negro-ness, his stare could fry a pan of bacon.
But Tara? Who was this cretin? And why was she so angry? Then the second season started, with that atrocious MaryAnn, Maenid as Plantation Mistress storyline, and I saw the light. Ball needed Tara. He needed her there to show that Eggs (the under-utilized Mehcad Brooks), the lone hetero brotha on the show, wouldn’t be screwing any white women, especially not the white woman who, for all intents and purposes, had him in captivity. We also needed Tara to trot out a bad, religious-zealot black mother, to show that black mothers could be as monstrous and soul-destroying as white mothers (Mothers don’t do well in Alan Ball projects; they’re either dead already or loony-tunes or mute or just such ball-busters they might as well be, well, fathers.) Luckily Mother Thornton is played by the beautiful and luminous Adina Porter (who’s photographed in High Hag mode for some unexplained reason) which gives some of her scenes a crazy rhythm missing in many others.
Which leads me to this: Do I dislike Tara so much just because of how she’s written and directed? Or is it the actress behind the role? I heard last summer that the Julliard-trained Rutina Wesley, who plays Tara now, was actually a re-cast before the show started to shoot, that another actress had been cast in the role, then, well, cast aside. Perhaps she’s the lucky one? Cause I don’t want my dislike of Tara, my utter revulsion whenever her character appears on screen or opens her mouth to say something ridiculous, to be Rutina Wesley’s fault. This isn’t like when I hated Izzy on Grey’s Anatomy because I couldn’t bear the blah-blonde looks or intonation-less voice of Katherine Heigl (who, I think, MUST be laughing all the way to the bank these days thinking of the ruse she’s pulled over Hollywood’s eyes). No, I want to like Rutina Wesley; she’s a sista, I want big things for her. But I fear that the producers of True Blood have seen to it that homegirl’s career is headed for a lifetime of Comic-Con appearances. Because who would hire her after True Blood? Who would watch a reel of this show and think, Wow, this actress can really make you feel something deep or make you see something new or make you laugh (and not at her)? I mean, based on last night’s ep, she over-acts even when she’s having an orgasm. NOT a good look. And is it my imagination, or do they do her make-up to blacken her up?
But then, maybe I’m off with all this. People tell me that the whole show is so over-the-top, that the white characters are just as ridiculous as the black ones (well, maybe Sookie, yeah), that I’m wrong for singling out Tara’s obnoxiousness with such aplomb. Well, just call me a bad apple, cause my aplomb is going nowhere anytime soon, from the looks of things. Maybe the arrival of Alfre Woodard will be good for the show, tamp down Tara’s manic imbecility into something halfway watchable and listenable. But then I get nervous for poor Alfre, and I start to think about the last time she did an arc on a TV show created and run by a guy who seems to hate women (mothers, in particular) as much as he seems to want to celebrate them. Desperate Housewives. But then, Alfre’s moved on. That’s gonna be Vanessa Williams’ battle to fight next season…By the way, while I got you here, have I told you how much I just love me some Vanessa Williams?…..