NO COUNTRY FOR UNCONSCIOUS PEOPLE
John Sayles puts the imaginative life of African Americans on the screen better than most
By Armond White
It’s time to acknowledge John Sayles’ dependable good intentions. His latest film, Honeydripper, may have slipped through the cracks of December’s big-ticket releases (most of them showing-off bad intentions), but it’s easily Sayles’ best film in a good while. The subject isn’t hot—a black-owned Alabama juke joint in 1950 faces competition from rock ’n’ roll and the electrified bar down the road, the milieu that was ludicrously sensationalized in Black Snake Moan. Yet the people Sayles puts on screen are satisfyingly warm.
The hand-fashioned Honeydripper joint is owned by Tyrone Purvis, a middle-aged, onetime boogie-woogie piano player whose commitment to preserve his livelihood propels Honeydripper’s interesting portrait of a community’s ethos.
As Sayles’ latest multi-character cavalcade (following Silver City, Casa de los Babys, Sunshine State, Lonestar), Honeydripper finally anchors his plot intrigues in palpable history. Tyrone and his sleepy Alabama folk are waiting for revelation: the coming Civil Rights movement and R&B-into-rock ’n’ roll revolution. As they subsist near an Army base, toil in the cotton fields and lounge in Tyrone’s bar, Sayles embarks upon necessary cultural retrieval; he’s like an anthropologist or musicologist searching to better understand his long-time subject of how America’s diverse societies work.
The leisure-time musical basis of Honeydripper endows Sayles’s project with an a capella emotional groove. This common-folk, plain-talk simplicity is true to his working-class sensibility and essential decency. It allows him to create an uncomplicated version of the American condition like the Coen brothers surveyed in No Country for Old Men—but uncynically. Critics have overrated No Country for Old Men as if it were another Clint Eastwood movie warping working-class life into nihilistic dread and noir formula. Sayles displays a better sense of the world than Eastwood; like the Coens, he understands how people live in the face of Death: that is, encroaching capitalism, soul-sapping technology and physical obsolescence.
One of the loveliest sequences Sayles ever directed shows an aging blues songstress, Bertha Mae (Dr. Mabel John), inching her way to her home, followed later by a series of photo portraits that serves benediction for her rich personal memories.
Sayles’ theme anticipates the mid-20th century changes that redefined the U.S. as no country for unconscious people. (In his own plodding way, he gets right all the things Bryan Barber and OutKast made silly and false in Idlewild.) The phantom figure of pop music phenomenon Guitar Sam, who Tyrone hires to perform, hoping to draw crowds to the Honeydripper, signifies an idealized figure who stands-in for people’s assorted hopes. Tyrone realizes Guitar Sam can be embodied by anyone and sets in motion a ruse where a young itinerant musician can improvise a role in history.
Freed of the biographical strictures that embalmed Matewan, Sayles dramatizes American cultural and political ingenuity; unlike Oprah and Denzel’s Great Debaters (which opened with an unlikely gospel-juke joint bump-n-grind) he puts the imaginative life of African Americans on the screen. But it’s not the same do-gooder banality of The Brother From Another Planet because Honeydripper’s superb cast anchors Sayles’ fable in credible humanity. Danny Glover gives Tyrone’s late-in-life ruefulness bluesy stoicism. His temperament resonates like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman’s currently underappreciated Bucket List performances.
These men are more realistic than Daniel Day Lewis’ pyrotechnics in There Will Be Blood; they’re scaled for feeling, not myth. Glover’s usually taciturn, second-banana status becomes the commanding, simmering patience of a man ready to meet life on its own rough terms, yet is cool about it. Tyrone’s personal troubles (gambling debts, a church-woman wife who makes him feel guilty about his worldliness) reflect what Sayles learned from Richard Wright, John Edgar Wideman and other writers of Black Southern experience who knew about masculine consciousness.
Glover has a seething rapport with every actor. When Tyrone sets to the piano and plays a lyrical tune, Glover fully inhabits the moment of aptitude. His casual aplomb, like Errol Garner’s, evokes a quiet sophistication. (This is especially welcome after the unmusical mess Samuel L. Jackson made rapping “Stagger Lee” in Black Snake Moan.) Tyrone’s relationship with his wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) may be the subtlest subplot Sayles ever devised. Delilah’s church service scenes suggest a modern version of the marital/spiritual crisis that was played as wonderful melodrama by Ethel Waters and Eddie Anderson in Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky. Without singing, Hamilton’s wifely concern for her own soul and her marriage strikes the same chords as Spencer Williams’s singular Southern church woman classic Go Down, Moses. Sayles doesn’t match those antecedents, but his heart-and-soul filmmaking honors their legacy.