‘He’s White?’: The Calculated Risk and Reward of Rhetorical Crossover in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’

Sarah Wagoner
7 min readNov 20, 2022

Along with the larger American public’s social consciousness of Black issues comes a concerted effort to reconsider the crossover of Black rhetoric and Black art to white rhetoric and white art. A primary figure in this debate is Elvis Presley, as some of his more famous songs, such as “Hound Dog”, were originally recorded by Black singers. In fairness to Presley, many oversimplify his place in the crossover, placing the blame on him while ignoring the role of his manager, Thomas Andrew Parker, and the broader, racist standards of the industry. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis depicts the role of Parker in tandem with the anti-Black pressures of music consumerism from the fifties onto the seventies. Although, like many biopics, the film softens the reality of Elvis’ life, including the detrimental effects of the crossover on Black musicians and rhetoric, Luhrmann’s expressivist depiction of historical events allows for a contrast between Black art and Elvis’ translation to a white audience that visually illustrates the nuanced process of rhetorical crossover.

The very concept of “rhetorical crossover” is adapted from the concept of musical crossover. In Cedric Burrows’ Rhetorical Crossover: The Black Presence in White Culture, Burrows defines this crossover as “the movement of the Black rhetorical presence…from the African American community to the white community” (19). Before giving this distinct definition, he explains that the word “crossover” has its own meaning in African American rhetoric as “the music of an African American artist moved from a primarily African American audience to a primarily white one” (19). What is important to note in this definition is the focus on the audience, rather than the creator. While the creator’s race often correlates with the audience, it is not always the case. Elvis’ covers of Black music would not be a crossover if there wasn’t an emphasis on his white audience. Elvis does not have a determination over his audience. His management had this determination, which is illustrated by the film in Parker’s first experience with Elvis’ music.

While there are a few introductions to Elvis, both as a concept and a person, the most notable is Colonel’s first interaction with his music. During a conversation with his client, Hank Snow, where they discuss finding a compelling opening act, Parker overhears Presley’s rendition of “That’s All Right” over the radio. Parker notices the song is from a Black-owned record company, but Hank’s son informs Parker that the singer is a white man. Upon the utterance of “he’s white”, Parker becomes entranced with the song. The volume overtakes the conversation in the scene. Parker inches nearer to a car, with the song booming from the radio. Parker repeats the words “he’s white” before a transition to the next scene, wherein Parker witnesses the sexual influence Elvis has over the audience (Luhrmann).

The statement at the center of the scene allows the audience to understand Parker’s marketing strategies. He is dismissive of the song when he assumes the singer is Black. His reasoning is not based on personal hatred. He notes that the audience would not be compelled by a Black singer, with the implication that they may even be upset by a Black singer. When he is informed on the race of the singer, his attitude changes. He considers the implications, with the scene implying that he is focusing on the song to consider the ramifications of its amplification. However, when he comes back to the statement, “he’s white”, it becomes declarative. In this utterance, his cane, with a clown figure on the top, is next to his head, reminding us of his connections between performance and the Carnival. The visual combines with his realization to tell us that he will allow Elvis to perform because he is offering a taboo experience to the white audience which becomes acceptable because of his race. This reflects the Carnival’s tendency to invite culturally modest audience members to enact upon their carnal inhibitions.

Opposition to “race music” by the racist, white population was not only in the notion that the songs held supposedly anti-white ideals, but it was tied to white fears of racial integration, which was tied to sexual fears of non-white people. The fear of racial integration has multiple origin points, but perhaps the most relevant to the Jim Crow South, where Elvis grew up and began his career, is the history of American eugenics. Despite its initial popularity in Europe, eugenics became a popular ideology in the Deep South, which focused on societal segregation of mentally and physically disabled people, but the language of eugenics was adapted in order to legitimize legal attempts at sexual segregation for all people with “presumed dysgenic traits” (Dikötter 471). Although the flood of eugenics support was in the 20s, the majority of Elvis’ audience and his detractors would have grown up with eugenics as a culturally ingrained concept which colored their view of Black people and rhetoric. Thus, Black music performed by a white musical act would be an invitation to the forbidden culture. Because Elvis’ skin does not match the rhetoric of the music, the audiences could convince themselves that they were partaking in an appropriate venue for their curiosity of Black music. Elvis himself even played into that curiosity, by dancing in a sexual nature that reflects the fear of Black sexuality.

The Carnival appeals to multiple desires of the audience, but it specifically appeals to sexual desires and desires of abundance. Often conservative societies will have festivals in order to celebrate the success of their cultural traditions. In being able to have abundance to utilize, the citizens feel encouraged to indulge in the behaviors they are otherwise encouraged to act against. In Fables of Abundance, Lears posits that the existence of the Carnival and Cockaigne, a fictional imagined land of abundance which is thought of as a never-ending Carnival, implied “an inversion of established hierarchies: the degradation of the pretentious and powerful, the celebration of the most despised earthly creatures and bodily functions” (22).

Elvis allows the audience to celebrate the same overt sexuality which the white audiences feared by performing in a white space and in a white body. The white fear of Black sexuality in white music often meant a fear of the movement of Black performers. Sexuality itself was feared due to fundamentalist Christian values. Chastity and abstinence is considered a primal moral value in this image of America. Elvis’ dancing was an introduction to sexuality within music, and thus against those values. Although he was not scantily clad, nor overtly discussing the act of sex, he would thrust his hips to accentuate his penis, although his clothes fully covered his member. Combined with his translation of Black music, his act became an escape for white teenagers, primarily white teen girls. The forbidden aspect of music was still taboo through Elvis’ act, but Elvis’ mainstream acceptance combined with the Colonel’s marketing strategies, which portrayed him as an all-American musical act, allowed for a Carnivalesque suspension of morals.

This suspension does not mean that all members of the society were accepting of the crossover. While we do not see any resistance from Black characters in the film, there is a focus on the backlash Elvis received from racist, white, Southern politicians. The audience is taken into the conflict between the crossover and the politicians in two pivotal scenes. In the first, a politician walks in on his children watching Elvis perform on the Ed Sullivan show. Once he notices Elvis’ signature dance, he berates the performance, seemingly utilizing an anti-Black slur. The scene cuts out before the word is uttered. The second scene is the Russwood Park performance. Elvis has been told by the Colonel that he must restrain himself in order to avoid government censorship. He finds that he cannot bring himself to perform without exploring the music with his body. Elvis’ pelvic thrusts are intercut with a political rally wherein the Southern politicians call for an end to racial integration (Luhrmann). The editing between the two actions and Elvis’ concerned facial expressions then imply that his usage of Black music and his transgressive use of sexuality is a protest against racist policies. White rhetorical use of Black rhetoric becomes revolutionary to the white audience, rather than being seen as a distilled version of Black rhetoric.

This is not to say that Luhrmann is unethical for portraying Elvis’ music as revolutionary. Elvis’ performances did have an important impact not only on music’s integration of sexuality, but on the larger sexual revolution. His usage of Black music even had the potential to translate the messages of some songs. However, the film only wishes to explore Elvis’ relationship to Black culture and the Colonel’s exploitation of that relationship and it ignores the important perspectives of those Black musicians. The film ultimately is a maximalist exploration of the political impact of his iconography, however, in Luhrmann’s fascination with excess, the consequences of Elvis’ fame on the Black community goes uncovered. Thus, the film represents only the white reaction to the rhetorical change, keeping the crossover intact.

Elvis, as a figure, as a person, and as a musician, was a pioneer of rhetorical crossover. He took inspiration from the Black culture he grew up with, which was explicitly tied to poor white Southern culture. If he had control over his marketing, it is possible that he would’ve put more credit to the Black musicians he translated. For now, we know the Carnivalesque techniques of the Colonel and his general knowledge of the audience was a primary reason for the crossover within Elvis’ music. Elvis was a musical sensation, not entirely due to his own talent, but because the Colonel knew how to turn Black music into a Carnival ride. He just needed a white body to act as a music box.

Works Cited

Burrows, Cedric D. “Introduction: Too Black, Too Strong: The Black Rhetorical

Presence.” Rhetorical Crossover: The Black Presence in White Culture, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, pp. 3–21. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv17nn00m.5. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

Dikötter, Frank. “Race Culture: Recent Perspectives on the History of Eugenics.” The American

Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 2, 1998, pp. 467–78. JSTOR,

https://doi.org/10.2307/2649776. Accessed 16 Oct. 2022.

Elvis. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, performances by Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, and Olivia

DeJonge, Warner Brothers, 2022.

Lears, Jackson. Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, New York,

Basic Books, 1995.

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Sarah Wagoner

Literature Major, GWST Minor, Graduate Student, She/Her, focus on politics in media, Professional email: sarahwagoner6@gmail