When people remember True Blood, they recall a supernatural world that lacked the fantastical luster typically associated with fairy dust. It was gritty, but still addictive nonetheless. Fans relive wild sex scenes and a host of memorable characters that spanned the gamut from normal human to volatile vampire. However, True Blood has stuck with just as many people for its progressive messages of inclusion and acceptance. The HBO series used vampires as an allegory for the LGBTQ+ community and their movement for equal rights. But looking back, 10 years after the show premiered, how did True Blood handle its representation of people of color? It’s worth taking a look at how Black characters fit into a rural South run amok with paranormal activity and an underground blood economy. In this context, I’d say that True Blood was surprisingly on point, even if Black characters were in the minority.
True Blood was based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. It immersed viewers into a world where vampires have decided, thanks to the development of synthetic human blood, to come out of hiding and assimilate into mainstream U.S. society. The hot-blooded population is divided into camps: the conservative, Christian right wing that has deemed vampires to be a threat to the safety and moral fabric of the country; and the progressive left that supports their full inclusion in society, even if there is a bit of fetishism involved. It’s similar rhetoric for anyone familiar with the movements for both civil and LGBTQ+ rights. However, conversations about race in True Blood were not simply overlaid onto the bodies of vampires. The social tension around the cold-blooded beings emerged in an America with its racist history still intact. This context is important, because it informs the population of Bon Temps, the fictional Louisiana parish where the show is set.
Bon Temps is — for all intents and purposes — the rural South. At best it’s a small town in a Southern state with a mostly white demographic. But just like True Blood itself, Bon Temps is surprisingly progressive. There are a few Black families in the area, the most prominently featured being Tara (Rutina Wesley) and her cousin Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis). Over the course of True Blood’s seven seasons, Tara, Lafayette, and other supporting Black characters get their fair share of impactful roles, meaningful relationships, and powerful storylines. In the first season, Tara harshly questions whether or not a centuries-old vampire owned slaves. Lafayette, Bon Temps' only openly gay and androgynous drug dealer, regularly claps back at bigoted white folks and homophobes alike.
It’s also worth noting that Tara herself eventually became a vampire, despite being extremely wary of them earlier in the series. Lafayette is later revealed to be a medium who can communicate with the dead. Surpassing the limitations of humanity is not reserved for the fairer-skinned in this series,; this is a big deal in a genre that has only recently discarded the general assumption that Black characters are always minor and will inevitably die at the hands of some evil. People of color have not fared well in the sci-fi/horror genre, and in this alone, True Blood was ahead of its time.
This isn’t to say that True Blood was a perfect model of how Black people should be represented on screen. We rooted for Tara and Lafayette, but neither of them were afforded the “heart of gold” morality that was bestowed upon main character Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) or her vampire bae, Bill (Stephen Moyer). In addition to being a drug dealer (and one of the show’s most beloved characters), Lafayette was a sex worker and hustler who prioritized himself in most things. Tara’s mom (Adina Porter) was an abusive alcoholic. And Tara herself was just plain old mean. While we could root for each of these characters, they all operated within dysfunction.
True Blood aired years before Hollywood was forced to reckon with mass calls to add more diversity to the industry. More than half a decade before the Oscars were called out for being so white; before inclusion riders were a buzzword; before Black creators like Jordan Peele left the horror genre completely mind blown, True Blood allowed Black people to exist with our full range of experiences intact and on a spectrum from flawed personhood to sexy vamp.