Shannon Sanders

By Ron Wynn

NASHVILLE, TN — The ongoing controversy behind Elvis Presley and his influences, as well as whether he’s overly credited with popularizing rock and roll, has been raging for decades. But the new Baz Lurhmann film on Presley, which opened Friday, features a number of Black actors, among them Nashville’s Shannon Sanders (who’ll be featured in an upcoming article/interview). Both vocalist Yola and model Alton Mason are acting debut in the film. They discussed last week with the Shadow and Act website their feelings on the film and the impact their characters (Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard) had on Presley’s music. 

 “I [was] talking to Baz, and he was like, ‘I feel like the Elvis story doesn’t have any context,” Yola said. “He was not even born. He was hewn. And we need to make him human and we need to give him context. And that context is in the Black community where he grew up. And that context is in the music that he grew up in and everything that fed into making him who he was.’ And I was like, ‘So you’re telling me that you’re finally going to tell the story of rock and roll, and I get to play Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who I grew up with?’

“I knew she invented rock and roll [and] knew that there was a dishonor being done to her, but I never thought I’d get a chance, not in a month of Sundays, to actually rectify that wrong just for Black women everywhere, that’s just like a ‘hell yeah’ moment if ever I saw one [laughs],” she explained. “I get to kind of go, ‘Hey, this queer Black woman invented something so iconic and necessary to popular music, that if you were to take her out of the timeline, musically, it would implode.’ That was something that was just a massive motivator to me. I finally got to give Sister Rosetta Tharpe her flowers. And also for the kids to know, if you were a little black girl and someone tells you, ‘you can’t play rock and roll because that ain’t a black thing, you can go, ‘It is, it’s like the blackest thing.’”

Mason also added his thoughts, saying,”I think this film is such an informative film that the future needs to see today, just because of the sun and moon of the gift and the industry, the music and the business,” he said. “I get to play an electrifying young Little Richard that’s full of passion. He’s taking you to church in Club Handy with his band. Hee feels at home with Sister Rosetta, the extras and the crowd and the audience. But it’s a time when Elvis comes back to rekindle that familiar spirit that he grew up with and he goes to Club Handy and he’s with B.B. King and he’s watching Little Richard and he sees Little Richard and he is like, “Hm, that’s it. That’s what it is. That’s what that fire is. That’s what that feeling is.’ And Little Richard is someone that has paved the way for guys to release that fire in any way that they want to, to identify what that fire feels like and looks like.”

He added, “When you think of Childish Gambino, when you think of André 3000 and Michael [Jackson] and Prince, that’s Little Richard who opened that door for you to be that way. So, this movie is such a lesson and a learning experience. And with us being in one of the most creative times of earth, really, I think it’s important that people go watch it.”

“Elvis” is currently showing in Nashville at various theaters, including Green Hills, Hollywood 27 and Opry Mills.