Some actors are so normal they are menacing.
It is a rare gift to portray the debased side of humanity with an authenticity that can illicit a familiar fear within the audience.
Thomas Jefferson Byrd was that uncommon talent.
The 70-year-old actor was fatally shot in Georgia on Saturday morning, according to Atlanta police spokesman Anthony Grant.
Officers responded to southwest Atlanta for an injured person call. When officers arrived, Byrd was found unresponsive, according to police.
Byrd was pronounced dead at the scene with multiple gunshot wounds to the back, police said.
His death and the circumstances around it are under investigation.
This is a loss not only for cinema but for the unique diversity that only Byrd could portray. He embodied the varied sides of the Afrikan experience.
An Old Head’s O.G.
There is an exquisitely Black definition that separates the old head from the O.G.
An old head is someone who is still in the scene beyond the ‘acceptable’ or expected age that usually espouses negativity.
An O.G. is an older statesman that is full of wisdom and isn’t afraid to share it to advance the culture or community.
Thomas Jefferson Byrd played both, humanizing stereotypes and reminding us all of the underbellies of Black America.
In 1995’s Clockers, a Spike Lee joint, Byrd played the nefarious Errol Barnes; a drug addict with no regard for anyone’s life as a merciless hired gun.
He was the ghetto Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men except in the concrete housing project jungle of Brooklyn instead of the slow Southwestern charm of Texas.
Byrd reminded the audience that when a man is down bad and desperate, his back story is hellacious and the Errol Barnes character was birthed through hell.
A Spike Lee regular, Byrd also played Honeycutt, a loquacious jive-spewing emcee of the most ignorant self-hatred promoting faux television show ever conceived in Bamboozled.
Byrd’s portrayal of Honeycutt sliced Ginsu knife-sharp through the layer of white fame sought by Black entertainers with a win at all costs attitude.
His performance was as horrific as it was a brilliant display of debased humanity.
A True Thespian
Byrd earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Morris Brown College. The unaccredited, private Methodist HBCU is the first institution in Georgia to be owned and operated independently by African Americans.
Later, Byrd received a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance from California Institute of the Arts.
An accomplished theater actor, Byrd starred in numerous regional stage productions including the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s award-winning performance of Spunk.
He also starred in Home, Two Trains Running, The Piano Lesson and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Alliance Theater, Flyin’ West, Hamlet, and Miss Evers’ Boys at the Indiana Repertory, and in other productions of Flyin’ West at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Long Wharf Theatre.
For his Broadway debut, a performance in the 2003 revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Byrd received a Tony Award nomination for the best-featured actor.
Byrd also appeared in Get on the Bus, Red Hook Summer, and Chi-Raq. Byrd also appeared as Stokely Darling in Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It and Set It Off, Ray, and Brooklyn’s Finest.
2020 has been the biggest buzzkill of all and this loss sustains that statement. Salute to a real one who donned the images of a million nameless men mired by the trauma of the Black American experience.
Like his namesake, Thomas Jefferson who is the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Byrd was a man all his own who authored the characters beneath the veneer of sophistication for descendants of the Diaspora.
Bow your heads for this requiem for Thomas Jefferson Byrd.