No one is as beautifully broken on HBO's True Blood as Tara. The girl was so insanely screwed up from jump that, as I watched the first two seasons, it made me sad that she represents 50 percent of the black population on a series set in the backwoods of Louisiana (the other 50 percent, of course, being represented by her cousin Lafayette, the drag queen drug dealer).
But now, deep into the show's third season, True Blood's Tara is finally close to redemption after mourning true love, trying to commit suicide, having a one-night stand, being kidnapped and doing some murdering. In a cast filled with vampires, werewolves, shape shifters and whatever-the-heck Sookie is, Tara has emerged as one of the lone humans. She is real. Damaged, certainly, but at least three-dimensional.
Tara has been forced to play second fiddle, however, to Southern dumb belle Sookie Stackhouse, who thinks she can survive the most dangerous situations because of her ability to read minds (if you can hear someone thinking about murdering you, is that really a gift?). For two seasons Tara was little more than the angry black best friend, more likely to call someone a bleeping idiot than to dish out the sweet down-home advice. Actress Rutina Wesley plays Tara with Angela Bassett biceps and a Southern staccato that rarely slows down.
"I only go off on stupid people," Tara says when the only restaurant in town balks at hiring her as a bartender. Her cousin, town chef Lafayette, counters, "You should not be allowed to work in no situation where you actually gotta interact with people." People and Tara usually don't mix. Smiling more won't work for her. The Care Bear approach to life just isn't Tara's thing. She is the outsized bitch in a small town — Bon Temps — filled with folks who keep their issues (like turning into a dog) a secret.
This season on True Blood, all of Tara's secrets have been laid bare, revealing not just the poor black daughter of an alcoholic but a woman who wants to be alive. After her lover Eggs is accidentally murdered on purpose by Sookie's mentally-challenged-but-undiagnosed brother Jason, Tara sinks into a brief depression. She had met Eggs while on a mission to turn her life around and instead turned into a zombie. Seriously.
"So there was a bottle of pills and I didn't plan it. I just saw the bottles and I thought … enough. I deserve some peace." But there is no rest for the weary in True Blood, especially for the woman who serves as Bon Temps' unlikely superhero. More than a black best friend, Tara is the town champion — or, more accurately, its conscience.
When the Los Angeles Times coined the term BBF, or black best friend, three years ago, perhaps some hopeful moviegoers figured things might actually change — that for once, the successful-but-lonely supporting role in Hollywood's latest romantic live-action musical dramedy wouldn't go to a black actress whose few lines always started with, "Giirrrrrl." The perfect eye roll would no longer be a bullet point on a brown actress's résumé. (Before the role of Tara, Wesley's other credits included the Step Up rip-off How She Move and Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show.)
The BBF, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Greg Braxton, isn't really a friend at all. She's basically a new-millennium mammy, doling out heaping helpings of wisdom mixed with wisecracks in a post-racial urban environment (as opposed to a plantation). The BBF's principal function is to support the heroine, wrote Braxton, "often with sass, attitude and a keen insight into relationships and life." They are gorgeous, independent, loyal and successful.
Tara is gorgeous, but she isn't desired. In a telling scene in the episode "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," a gang of fangers surround Tara, who has been tied to a chair by Franklin, the insane vampire who thinks he's in love with her ("She's such a f——— disaster, we could be twins"). When Franklin claims Tara as his own, the other vampires simply shrug. Relax, nobody wants her. It takes Franklin's bloody attempt to turn Tara into a vampire and then marry her (of course) for Tara to snap back into wanting herself. In a place where half the residents are actually dead, it's Tara who wants to live.
Going back to Hattie McDaniel, who advised Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind that "what gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things," the idea that black women somehow know more about the ways of the world than their hapless white charges is a problematic meme. When the notion of black women's infallibility gets continually reinforced on celluloid, then it's no wonder that the Wonder Woman perception plagues the single-while-black community.
This is why the trend of BBFs can be so damaging. No woman comes out of the womb knowing everything. There's living, learning and screwing things up to be done. That's what Tara's been doing thus far — or, as she tells Sookie, still her hapless charge, "Killing vampires and saving your ass," as they escape yet another vampire pit. "I'll fill you in later. Now let's get the hell outta here."
Thankfully, after introducing us to Tara the terrorist in the first two seasons, True Blood has decided to fill us in on the rest.
This article was corrected on August 20 to reflect the fact that The Cleveland Show is a spinoff of Family Guy.