Another day, another white dude’s mythical vision of the South centered on economically disadvantaged black folk. After David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” and Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a cynic has to wonder whether writer-director Tim Sutton is an opportunist who sees his new film, “Memphis,” as a way to propel him to fame and critical acclaim (although one might be inclined to give Sutton the benefit of the doubt; he does have a master’s in African American studies).
“Memphis” is the stock tale of the self-destructive star unequipped to cope with fame, but told in an indie, offbeat way. Singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal stars as a fictionalized version of himself, a gifted musician in a rut wandering through the streets and the woods of Elvis’ birthplace, unable to commit to his craft, his girlfriend (Constance Brantley) or his church.
The film feels like a sketch rather than a portrait, beautifully rendered but incomplete in the details. Beal the character remains an impenetrable myth, and even his descent into a crack house is matter-of-fact and without a hint of despair.
It’s not that white dudes shouldn’t tackle stories about nonwhite people. What’s unforgivable is the fetishization of cultural myths and the perpetuation of stereotypes — the portrayal of African Americans as simple-minded, unproductive and primal. With a disengaging style, Sutton doesn’t even attempt to help the audience identify or empathize with any of the characters. What a luxury it must be to observe minorities in their supposed natural habitats from the comfort of an art-house theater.
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.
Playing: At Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles.