The early scenes in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis—that show the future king of rock ’n’ roll entering a Black gospel revival or interacting with B. B. King and Little Richard—might come as a surprise to many undergraduates.
After all, rock today is an overwhelmingly white (and male) genre, separate and apart from Black music. That reality stands in stark contrast to rock ’n’ roll’s roots, when many of the sound’s forebears and originators were Black, like Ellie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Chuck Berry.
No one goes to a biopic expecting a history lecture, but the Elvis Presley story raises a host of issues that have garnered a great deal of serious scholarly attention, involving race relations and gender and sexuality during the 1950s, cultural appropriation, Southern white working-class culture and greed and exploitation in the music industry.
Film critics tended to focus on the film’s Luhrmannesque flamboyance: its brash, theatrical, over-the-top style, lurid colors, fast-paced camera cuts, showy acting and flashy costumes. But to my surprise, much less has been said about Presley’s cultural and historical significance and what his biography might tell us about class, region, race, gender and sexuality in a rapidly shifting post–World War II society, much less about popular culture and the construction of reality.
After all, with his androgynous sexual mystique, his eye shadow, his gender-subversive dress and self-presentation and his open friendships with figures like Fats Domino, Sammy Davis Jr. and B. B. King, Presley can’t be reduced to the naïve, unreflective, easily manipulated rube that the Luhrmann film largely depicts.
With his secondhand bubble-gum-pink–and–black costumes, picked up at Lansky Brothers, the Beale Street clothing store that fitted out Black musicians, and his ornately styled hair, the young Presley constructed a distinctive identity that included his “knitted bolero tank tops with his midriff hanging out, truck driver sideburns, make-up and dyed black hair.” Not surprisingly, this has led more than one LBGTQ+ periodical to ask: “Was The King a bit of a queen?”
That question may be anachronistic, but it is not inappropriate. As the University of Leeds communication professor Yvonne Tasker writes, “Elvis was an ambivalent figure who articulated a peculiar feminized, objectifying version of white working-class masculinity as aggressive sexual display.”
Like such successors as Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Harry Styles, Presley carefully constructed himself “a transgendered sexual fantasy,” in the words of Erika Doss, the Notre Dame American studies scholar. Especially striking in hindsight is a scene in Jailhouse Rock, where the prisoners sing:
“You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see
I sure would be delighted with your company
Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me”
It’s hard to escape the obvious meaning.
As Doss demonstrates in her 1999 volume on Elvis Culture, the king’s fans have continually reinvented the singer “to mesh with their own personal and social preferences and to keep his memory alive.” He has, for various audiences, become as a religious icon, a focus of sexual fantasy for those straight and gay, “an inspiration for countless impersonators and as an emblem of whiteness held in disdain by many blacks—despite his having crossed racial lines with his music.”
He has also become the foundation for an extraordinarily profitable commercial enterprise. His estate, worth $5 million at the time of his death in 1977, is now worth an estimated $400 to $500 million and generates about $40 million a year—not including the unauthorized sale of black velvet paintings with Presley’s likeness.
It’s, of course, striking that Elvis Presley and his racial masquerade and shredding of gender divides rose to prominence in the mid-1950s South. What should we make of that?
Pete Daniels, a National Museum of American History curator and the first public historian to serve as president of the Organization of American Historians, advanced several highly controversial arguments in his Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s. He insisted, first of all, that a unique Southern white working-class culture emerged “from poverty, religious fundamentalism and racial obsessions and manifested itself in spiritual music, fast cars and rebellious spirits.” In a collection entitled White Trash, Gael Sweeney would deem Presley “The King of White Trash Culture,” who embraced “an aesthetic of bricolage, of random experimentation with the bits and pieces of culture, but especially the out-of-style, the tasteless, the rejects of mainstream society.” Without a doubt, Presley’s appeal was indeed class-based, attracting a very different audience than Frank Sinatra or later the Beatles.
Daniels’s most hotly contested argument is that the two decades following the Second World War represented a lost opportunity in race relations in the South. Presley himself grew up in a largely Black neighborhood in Tupelo, Miss., and attended Black churches, including Memphis’s East Trigg Avenue Baptist Church, and his experience was not unique among rebellious lower-class whites. Challenging the view that massive resistance to integration was a product of rednecks and white trash, he shows how the growing ties between Black and white musicians (and their audiences) in the South were undercut by powerful segregationists who appealed to racism and made use of economic intimidation and threats of violence, while all too many white middle-class moderates acquiesced.
I doubt many readers of Inside Higher Ed ever saw the most oddly soulful and poignant cinematic depiction of Elvis Presley. Bubba Ho-Tep, a 2002 film based on a novella by Joe R. Lansdale and directed by Don Coscarelli and starring Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis, depicts a now elderly and pensive Elvis Presley living in an East Texas nursing home alongside a Black resident who claims to be former president John F. Kennedy.
The movie—at once a comedy, horror film, a buddy flick and a mummy movie along the lines of The Mummy’s Curse, The Mummy’s Ghost, The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb—is also “a moving meditation on the diminutions of age and the vagaries of fame,” a fiendishly funny reflection on “the indignity of disease, the anonymity of old age and the inevitability of death,” and an offbeat rumination about the ways that popular culture–induced fantasies color perceptions of reality.
Bruce Campbell’s thoughtful, brooding, contemplative character may (or may not) bear any resemblance to the real-life king, any more than the Elizabeths portrayed by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, Imelda Staunton and Verity Russell bring to mind the real queen. But Campbell’s Elvis is certainly the king that I wish he had been.
Features like Elvis or The Crown or The Queen’s Gambit remind us that we inhabit two worlds: the quotidian, the world of the ordinary and everyday, and the realm of the imagination, which strikes me as more real than the material world, at least until reality punctures our dreams and illusions.
When we call the movie industry the “dream factory,” we touch on a profound truth: not simply that the Hollywood studios manufactured fantasies the way Detroit made cars, but that the screen (whether silver or pixelated) is the one place where our deepest wishes, dreams and desires (and also our most innermost nightmares and delusions) come true.
Such shows are anything but mere entertainment. They’re educators that shape our values and aspirations and even our understandings of history. They’re also windows into the otherwise inscrutable and impenetrable lives of others. Most important of all, these serve as screens on which we can project our own fantasies and illusions.
It’s our job, as instructors, to interpret these reveries, place them in context and bring our students to awareness of how these products of popular culture work their magic.
Much as Dante needs Virgil to guide him through the Inferno and Purgatorio, our students, too, benefit from having us to steer them through the extraordinarily influential world of popular culture.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.