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Preach It: The Glory of Ruth Negga’s Tulip O’Hare on ‘Preacher’

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AMC’s Preacher is a surprisingly sedate creation. It moves at such a glacial pace that you have to wonder if the brain trust behind this adaptation of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s gonzo ‘90s Vertigo comic — Seth Rogen, Sam Catlin and Evan Goldberg — forgot it only has 10 episodes for the first season. Beyond the pilot, the comics’ bloody energy is almost entirely absent. The trio made many changes to the story in order to bring it to the screen, most of which don’t wholly work. But one does: Tulip O’Hare, the gun-for-hire ex-girlfriend of the show’s lead, magnificently played by Ruth Negga.

Tulip could have easily become an empty caricature of a so-called Strong Female Character, the kind whose personality mostly comes from a propensity for violence and one-liners. Or she might have been the typical comic-adaptation girlfriend who is kept away from the action and implores her man to be a good guy. Instead, Tulip is a complex figure who challenges preconceived notions of women in comic adaptations, diversity in the genre and antiheroes on TV.

Casting Negga demanded major changes to the character. In the comics, Tulip is drawn as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white woman; Negga is of Ethiopian and Irish descent. Racebending older comic characters for the screen is a necessity given the justified demands of audiences for greater diversity. It’s a challenge to others who feel comfortable whitewashing characters, sidelining people of color or trading in the harmful stereotypes that are baked into the premises of these decades-old stories. Just look at Marvel’s recent mistakes with the mistreatment of Asian characters on the second season of Daredevil and the upcoming Doctor Strange. Changing the races of characters like Tulip to people of color opens up much-needed story possibilities. After all, how many more white men prone to quips and brooding can audiences take?

The change also shifts our expectations of Tulip’s narrative. The weight of being a black woman in the South — especially in a story that skewers Southern bigotry — can’t be downplayed. The show hasn’t fully delved into the way her identity has shaped her experiences, but there are hints in how her aggression almost functions as a defense mechanism, biting back at men twice her size before they get the chance to cause any harm. Tulip willfully trades insults and threats of violence with everyone, from the men lounging around the brothel she occasionally finds refuge in to Preacher Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper) himself, whom she tries to convince to return to his life of crime. All of these men are white.

Tulip’s introduction in the pilot makes it clear how radically different she is from her comic counterpart. In a flashback to the recent past we learn that she’s a capable hired gun, fighting for her life inside an unmanned car that careens through a Kansas cornfield. In the scenes that follow she kills a man with an ear of corn, uses the help of two children to fashion a DIY bazooka and then shoots down a helicopter, leaving a fiery mess — and both kids in utter awe.

There’s a moment at the kitchen table, as she crafts that weapon, when it seems that the creators might veer Tulip into faux-feminist territory: “A woman needs to know how to be strong, stand on her own,” she says. But the mood shifts when she gets a faraway look in her eyes and discusses how life demands such strength from anyone who dares to love: “Man or woman, if you’re lucky enough to fall in love you have to be even stronger. Fight like a lion to keep it alive. So that on the day your love is weak enough or selfish enough or freaking stupid enough to run away, you have the strength to track him down and eat him alive.”

In a few short scenes we learn that Tulip is volatile, joyful, badass and surprisingly good with kids. What we witness in her introduction also extends to her relationship with Jesse. Instead of being the traditional comic-adaptation girlfriend, she’s the one who tries to seduce Jesse to embrace his darkness. Brutality and caring exist hand-in-hand within Tulip, something that isn’t quite a through-line for their relationship in the comics. Compare this to the Tulip we find on the page: an apprehensive and reluctant assassin who fumbles her hit, shooting the jaw off the wrong man and only able to escape when she happens to meet Irish vampire Cassidy sitting in his car nearby. Comic Tulip has her own very different complications, but the way the character is routinely sexualized undercuts her more interesting qualities. If translated directly from the comics, Tulip would be more conventional — and less dynamic.

Negga discusses the morality of Tulip in a recent interview, saying, “The brilliant thing about that speech [with the kids] is that she’s basically saying it’s okay to beat someone up or be violent if it’s going to help you. She has a very twisted moral viewpoint, but it’s so necessary, because so often women aren’t allowed that, are they? That opportunity, to be a fully rounded, flawed human being with a twisted viewpoint. It’s always the man. The woman is always kind of sober, motherly energy.” In this way Tulip stands as a powerful addition to the conversation about television’s antiheroes.

Much has been made about the recent proliferation of female antiheroes, like the icy lead of The Girlfriend Experience, the dedicated Elizabeth Jennings of The Americans and the manipulative women of UnREAL. What has been less discussed is how white this trend remains. Yes, there are exceptions, like Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder. But not enough. That’s part of why Tulip is so fascinating. If the usual white female antihero makes the claim that women can be monstrous too, black female antiheroes do something more subversive. An antihero like Tulip is a striking repudiation of the roles black women have been defined by in this country — the mammy, the jezebel, the strong black woman — whose legacy still manifests itself onscreen. What’s refreshing is that, despite having faced a lifetime of Southern racism and sexism, Tulip isn’t suffering or routinely beaten down like many of the other black women onscreen (just look at Olivia Pope on Scandal). There’s a joyousness to her that shouldn’t feel rare, but is.

Tulip’s morality may be more than a bit gray, but she doesn’t waver in her beliefs or desires. She’s a black woman moving through a bigoted milieu full of leering townsfolk who wish she would stay in her place — especially when she is the only person to complain about the death of a young prostitute after a paintball game gone wrong. For all that, none of this would work without Negga’s assured performance. She infuses Tulip with unexpected levity and innocence, and her charisma is enough to carry the scenes with the far more reactionary Jesse.

Preacher still needs to find a more solid point of view and stop spinning its narrative wheels. Sure, it’s fun seeing Tulip try to seduce Jesse into returning to who he used to be. But that can grow stale after a while, especially since he doesn’t seem that interested in doing so. It’s yet to be seen if Preacher becomes a cohesive story that gives Tulip an arc that lives up to what Negga brings to the role. Until then, seeing her swaggering performance is enough to make the case that maybe the show should be renamed Tulip and put her in the lead. 

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