Music Movie Mondays: Hounddog
Deborah Kampmeier’s 2007 feature Hounddog was dogged with controversy before its release. News quickly circulated that the movie featured a graphic scene wherein protagonist Lewellen (Dakota Fanning) is raped. This led to many stupid claims and a few smart ruminations from folks like Kate Harding, who read it alongside the Polanski case in terms of how society views gender, age, sexual agency, and rape. Though certainly a pivotal moment in a story about a pubescent Elvis Presley fan coming of age in the rural South during the late 1950s, perception of it and Fanning’s presence in the scene caused speculation that the actress was exploited and the movie itself was a 90-minute snuff film.
Hounddog is really about a girl with aspirations of stardom negotiating her personal identity with her fandom, family, and the societal expectations placed upon the white rural poor. At both a figurative and literal level, the movie is about Lewellen finding her own voice. Interestingly, Lewellen does this at first through mimicry. She croons and wails Presley’s hits at a moment’s notice, winding her hips in a way that I interpreted as innocent with perhaps a peripheral awareness of her developing sexuality. As our culture fixates on the prurient undertones of the actions of adolescent female bodies, I’m sure others wrongly assume her culpability.
But eventually she comes to find herself. She does this primarily through engaging with Charles (Afemo Omilami) a snake handler and musician. He first disabuses his young charge of her assumption that the song from which the movie gets its name originated with Presley by introducing her to Big Mama Thornton (Jill Scott, in a regrettably short cameo). Later, he senses the trauma she’s working through. She was raped by a teenaged milk man and lost the friend who witnessed the act and hopes to distance himself from the reality of it. She also copes with having an invalid father (David Morse), and runs into conflicts with her mother (Robin Wright Penn, who also served as producer) and grandmother (Piper Laurie), who themselves have a turbulent relationship. Charles encourages her to sing through these issues, which provides her with solace.
While I’m aware of the talent behind this movie, I can’t endorse it with or without Meshell Ndegeocello’s welcome but unremarkable score. For one, there are far too many hackneyed melodramatic plot points to contend with before Lewellen’s alcoholic father is struck by lightening. For another, the black characters are clearly present to merely facilitate white enlightenment. While Charles seems like a nice guy, most magical Negro characters are. They also tend to have one-sided relationships with their white counterparts and do little to challenge the traditional order of things, primarily because their race already contains enough of a threat. When Lewellen lashes out at Charles by calling him the English language’s most hateful epithet as a verbal manifestation of her pain, Charles tells her that she is one too and that they share an understanding as a result of shared oppression. You know, like the kind Quinn and Mercedes bond over on Glee. No.
Though I am pleased that we get to see a young girl work through the experience rather than become paralyzed or defined by it, I also question the rape’s narrative imperative. I am heartened that the young actress chose to be in the movie because of a personal investment in the project, recognized that her character is not defined by this horrible experiences, and is aware that actual children live through these kinds of traumas and worse. But the rape seems too reminiscent of previous iterations of young girls’ forming their nascent sexualities within independent American cinema, even if the scene was not as lurid as the press it garnered. I hope Lewellen continues shimmying and snarling long after the movie’s timeline just as surely as I hope for more movies that don’t assume a girl’s gyrations signal sexual assault.