Review: ‘Memphis’ gives outsider’s view of black people in the South


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.