Memphis Beat: yep, they did it wrong.
Most of you probably recall that I took issue with the fact that the new TNT drama Memphis Beat is filmed largely in New Orleans, rather than in the city where it’s set. In that article I promised to “rip this shizz to shreds”, but I was (mostly) kidding about that. Although I felt like I was hoping for something really futile, I wanted to like the show. Everyone wants to love portrayals of their hometown. Ex-pats want to see something every week that will make them feel a little less homesick; current residents look for some sort of representation that will translate in a manner that is realistic or relevant. Personally, I’d rather see a Memphis Beat that’s honest, rather than something that glosses over my beloved Memphis and makes it look like something other than what it is. When a film or television show setting is its own sort of character, as various folks involved with Memphis Beat have professed Memphis to be here, I believe that honesty is the best policy. If a setting is truthful, the story is likely to be truthful as well.
I took issue with many aspects of Memphis Beat, but there was plenty in the show that was better than I expected of it. The cast is talented and on point, although Jason Lee seems like he’s trying a little too hard sometimes. The accents aren’t perfect, but they’re a lot better than they could have been- better the “generic Southern accent” than the “let’s talk like a plantation owner in a white suit from 1847 accent” any day, no? There was some interesting direction- it was way more creative than other procedural crime dramas, anyway. They played a lot of Memphis soul, which was reassuring: Otis, Rufus, and Booker T And The MGs all made it onto the show. I also thought it was nice that WHER, Memphis’ and the world’s first all-female radio station, made an appearance of sorts, although it’s now defunct and the show presented it like it’s still around and is the most important station in the city, even giving it a piece of the skyline, and infusing it with WDIA-level sanctity (FYI, that would be Memphis’- and the United States’- first all-African American-programmed station).
I’m not sure if there’s much point in pointing out the tiny, specific inaccuracies in Memphis Beat that only a native could catch, of which there are many. The New Orleans street signs aren’t always cut out of shots, which is kind of silly. In one of the early scenes of the episode, Jason Lee taunted Alfre Woodard by saying something like, “that may be how you do things on the east side, but that’s not how we do it here”; Memphis has no “east side”. There were plenty of exterior (and interior) shots that didn’t look ‘Memphis’ at all, and partial skyline shots that were obviously of New Orleans’ skyline rather than Memphis’ (although when it comes down to it, that’s a pretty big deal). These things certainly contributed to an overall feeling of things being not quite right, but they weren’t the entire problem.
Like any good hometowner does when their city is portrayed on a national level, I’ve watched many movies that have been filmed and set in Memphis. Hustle And Flow totally felt like Memphis, as did Mystery Train. Heck, even The Firm felt right, in a way. However, Memphis Beat just wasn’t Memphis. Its general look and feeling were very faux-old, which makes me feel like they’re romanticizing “old Memphis”. There were very few black characters and extras to be found (although apparently Memphis has a sizeable Haitian population now; who knew?), even though Memphis’ current population is mostly African-American, and Jason Lee’s character drives around in an old GTO that he takes on stakeouts in rough parts of town (yeah, right; good luck with that, buddy). Giving portrayals of Memphis an “old feel” is a tired trap that plenty of misinformed people who try to convey the feel of current Memphis fall into. It’s patronizing and perhaps a little troublesome, considering that “Old Memphis” was segregated and was where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I’m not saying that Memphis didn’t offer plenty to the world during this time (like, y’know, most genres of what constitutes today’s popular music), but romanticizing its past doesn’t help anyone, whether that type of portrayal is intentional or not.
I’ve spent many hours of my life driving around Memphis alone after dark, cranking the music of my city and nodding at folks on the sidewalk, getting the feel of what’s going on around me and thinking about all of the complications that exist within the city. There’s something unsettling about seeing a character doing exactly what I’ve done so many times, except that all of the background shots are wrong. Shots of Beale Street, a street you can’t even drive on at night, are interspersed with shots of restaurants that don’t look familiar at all. I’ve never run into an Elvis impersonator on the street, but Jason Lee’s character did within the first few minutes of the show. Absorbing all of that was a strange feeling.
Memphis Beat could still get it right, but as long as they’re filming in New Orleans it’s not going to work out for them. Meanwhile I’ll keep hoping that Craig Brewer will work out a development deal with HBO or Showtime, or that some up and coming hometown filmmaker will finally hit the nail on the head. I really don’t think I’m going to be bothering with Memphis Beat anymore.
Pick up whatever you’re drinking, raise it in the air and say it with me: to Memphis, y’all.