It’s pretty much unheard of for the public to informally rename a movie. But Deborah Kampmeier’s Hounddog was so plagued by scandal even before its debut at Sundance, sparked by charges of twelve year old Dakota Fanning’s sexual abuse in a movie about her character’s sexual abuse, that the film itself got lost somewhere in the media scuffle.
It’s reported now that since the clamor at Sundance, Hounddog has been reedited for public consumption when it opens in theaters this fall, though the new version remains fairly graphic. And while the sexualization on screen of a twelve year old actress is dismissed by the filmmakers and some anti-rape organizations as irrelevant because the film is intended to focus on a grave social crime, one hand washing the other is not the point.
For instance in contrast, Towelhead, a far more graphic film about the sexual exploitation of a thirteen year old Arab-American girl, stars an actress in that grueling role (Summer Bishil), who is actually 20 years old. And so ironically, because Bishil is an adult but can convincingly play a young teen, the crime in question can be more explicitly dramatized and more effectively spur associated outrage.
In any case, Hounddog’s questionable issues are more numerous than Dakota’s sexual exploitation as a young actress, despite stellar ensemble performances from a distinguished cast. The setting is rural summertime Alabama in the mid-1950s in a racially mixed community. Dakota Fanning is Lewellen, a poverty stricken girl in a dumb and dumber stereotypical Southern white trash milieu, being raised by a stern religious grandmother (Piper Laurie) and an often absentee boozing dad Lew (David Morse). Lewellen’s mother has passed away, though we never learn why or when, and Lew has brought home a mysterious new girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn), much to Lewellen’s displeasure, referred to only as Stranger Lady.
Lewellen spends the summer hanging out with her best friend Buddy (Cody Hanford), swimming in the local lake and bartering kisses for a peek at his crotch, when not drinking beer with Lew and Strenger Lady, and doing suggestive Elvis gyrations to the tune of Hounddog. Lewellen, who appears to have a vague precociously promiscuous reputation in the community, is also consumed by Elvis worship. And when word comes that he’ll be performing in town, she’s ready to do nearly anything to get hold of a ticket.
The notorious rape scene in question, which is actually discreetly conveyed, is possibly the least disturbing aspect of Dakota’s performance. Much of her sexualized role is initiated by the female character herself, rather than a case of passive victimization. This comes suggestively close to the warped, widely held belief in this country, that women bring rape upon themselves by being too sexual.
Then there’s the matter of the rarely glimpsed black community, shadowy underdeveloped characters who are mostly seen in stereotypical fashion, getting together to play the blues, or altruistically alleviating white people’s woes. In fact Lewellen’s other best friend seems to be Charles (Afemo Omilami), an adult blues musician and stable caretaker who also, for some largely unexplained reason, eagerly volunteers for the male black mammy role in Lewellen’s life, as her devoted savior.
Now, this is the Jim Crow South, lest one forget while watching the movie, where while the Klan was terrorizing black people and lynching black men just for looking at white women, Charles is tending to victimized white females, including Stranger Lady, in his bedroom, and saving them from snakes slithering all around the community. By now you may be more than thinking Black Snake Moan, but let’s not even go there.
The one high point in this narrative, which is never adequately developed and begs for more, is when Charles enlightens Lewellen that Elvis is shamelessly ripping off black music, and the original Hounddog by Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton. And Jill Scott’s all too fleeting incarnation as Thornton doing Hounddog, is the seemingly inadvertent, glowing centerpiece of the movie.
It appears that what films about the South most lack, is a genuine sense of what’s real about those regions. And not the usual preconceived, outside looking in perspective.