I Avoided Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS Until I Didn’t

For months my wife wanted to watch the film. As a Memphian for the early part of my life, I have to admit that I watched Elvis films on Saturday afternoons because Memphis local television basically played them every week after he died and throughout the 80s. I knew Elvis lived at Graceland, but I never visited. Most Black Memphians never visit. I stopped looking at Elvis with the type of amazement when Public Enemy stated, “he was a hero to most, but he never meant s–t to me – a true racist, simple and plain, motherf–k him and John Wayne.” In those bars and in Public Enemy I began learning how to stand away from the music and films and look at Elvis with a more discerning eye.

A few years ago, my family did a tour of Graceland. The house remains trapped in time. It’s a haunting experience that forced me to reconsider my position on Elvis as a racist, but I still couldn’t move beyond the idea that he appeared to be in modern terms, a culture vulture. He capitalized on Black culture, but this movie version of Elvis provided a more nuanced look at the life of Presley. I avoided the film until my wife simply turned it on Friday night. Within five minutes I was taken into the early world of Elvis and what I saw wasn’t appropriation, it was the beauty of Black people in America. Black people have never been able to mistreat White folks in this country and the opening scene of Elvis peering into a juke joint watching the Blues being lived at the same moment as a church revival was taking place established that there are complexities to who a person will become especially when they are so heavily shaped by Black culture at a time where Black people had hardly any rights.

The film is beautifully shot and while it could be a recreation of Elvis to create a more sympathetic story to carry on the legacy of the man, I couldn’t remain firmly rooted in Public Enemy’s assessment of Elvis that shaped much of my perception of who he was. This new narrative worked. I understood the tragedy of the man. We often look at success as a measurement of happiness and opportunity, but what this film explained is what remains. Elvis’ Graceland is toured and visited on a daily basis. His spirit is trapped in the place. When we toured, I couldn’t help but feel sad. Watching this film and realizing he barely spent any time there at the end of his life because he was trapped, was heartbreaking. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the Colonel. It is the darkest role of his career, and it is possibly the most monstrous villain I’ve seen in a music biopic. If you can get beyond your preconceived notions of Elvis, this film is definitely worth the time.


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