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September 2013

Memphis in Bizarro World

I met author Denny Upkins in Nashville a few months ago, and since then I've enjoyed the hell out of his Facebook page. I never fail to find some new insight from his observations of pop culture, particularly in areas of race and sexual orientation.

He noted this afternoon that he had recently seen The Rainmaker, and wondered how the background of this Memphis-based movie could be so blindingly white. Memphis is 63 percent black, according to the latest census, in a state that is 17 percent black. Someone remarked that they should have shot on location.

Funny thing: I was there. I was a theater student in Memphis when The Rainmaker was filmed. In fact, I was in the movie theater when they filmed the scene where Matt Damon meets clandestinely with Claire Danes. So I know that they did film in Memphis.

Still, I was curious. So I watched the movie again tonight, running in the background while I was doing a hundred other things. And Denny is right: despite a lovely southern flavor to the music and a fairly authentic visual taste for urban Memphis... there are very few black people in the background and almost none among the main cast, except the judge (Danny Glover). Even the neighbors watching the outside deposition are all white, and only a few faces in the funeral and while taking the bar.

Funny enough, watching the movie I realized what bothered me the most about it when it came out in 1997, and it bothers me today.

The book itself is a wonderful catharsis for anyone who has ever had to fight an insurance company. John Grisham himself said he spent ten years suing insurance companies, and enjoyed the heck out of nailing the fictional Great Benefit Insurance Company in the pages of The Rainmaker. The case in the book is a detailed examination of patient triumphing over insurance. If you've ever had to appeal a claim, you'll love watching Great Benefit writhe.

The movie apparently felt that this wasn't dramatic enough. Instead of the capable, smart Rudy Baylor beating Great Benefit's pants off, the writers interjected a number of rookie mistakes, altered the circumstances so the victims seemed foolish instead of righteous, and eliminated plot details that put Rudy's clients signifcantly in the right.

There are moments where it works. Moments when Danny Glover glowers at the lawyers in the thousand-dollar suits, where Rudy watches his client wither and die for lack of health insurance and vow revenge.

But for the most part, it's a Bizarro World version of Memphis. It's a mostly-white Memphis where insurance companies are partly right to hide evidence, and all because they didn't think it was fair for the good guys to beat up the bad guys quite so much.

Usually, I'd think they were right. Nobody likes a one-sided fight. But in this case, I make an exception. Reading The Rainmaker felt like a prizefight with Rocky beating down the bad guy - and I didn't even like Rocky that much. Maybe because I've spent most of my adult life fighting with insurance companies... and so many of us have. It's the fight of all our lifetimes, appealing claims and turning down procedures for the cost.

I don't think The Rainmaker was a triumph for the higher-income bracket; Francis Ford Coppola is better than that, and we still know who the bad guys are in the end.

But sometimes we just need to see a knock-down fight, where the good guys win big.