Here’s our second report from Kenneth R. Morefield of Campbell University at the Toronto International Film Festival… and now he’s got me adding yet another must-see to my already long list for the coming months. It’s exciting to read that the John Sayles I know and love is still doing what he does best.
I have seen fourteen of John Sayles’s first fifteen films, most more than once, and the only one I didn’t like was his last one (“Silver City”). So it was with an odd mix of excitement and anxiety that I approached the world premiere of “Honeydripper” at the Ryerson Theater in Toronto. Two hours later the anxiety was gone and I just felt the excitement. “Honeydripper” had the scope of “Lone Star,” the eye for detail of “Limbo,” the great acting of “Casa de los Babys” and the depth of understanding of human nature of “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out.” In other words, it had and was everything I love about Sayles’s films. It also had something relatively rare in a Sayles film: joie de vivre.
It was a serious film about a serious topic—the trials of a black proprietor to keep his nightclub, The Honeydripper, afloat amid precarious circumstances and environmental oppression. There were echoes of “Big Night,” however, and as with that film, the artist’s love of his medium infused his work with an irrepressible spirit that could be squelched but not fully extinguished. When the personal and cultural elements finally do come together in such away to allow Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover in a finely nuanced role) to put on a show, it comes with a confirmation (subtle but deliberate, I think) that God is in his heaven and does, occasionally, spare a glance for the most neglected of sparrows.
Tyrone does not have much call for God, though he likes and takes comfort that his wife, the oh-so-ironically named Delilah, will say a prayer for him now and again. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Delilah must decide between what her heart or what her head tells her is true about God. Lisa Gay Hamilton gives a performance that perfectly complements Glover’s and the two are able to convey an easy comfort with and around each other than explains a large part of how their characters’ respective spirits have not been soured by a life of hard circumstances.
Last year, in the wake of Kurt Vonnegut’s death, one of my students asked me who I considered the greatest living American writer. I rounded up and suggested the usual suspects—Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike—but if she asked me today, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be tempted to nominate Sayles for that honor. American prose literature has (to a certain extent) always been fractured into and by regionalism to such an extent that it is hard to name authors who are quintessentially American. Hawthorne belongs first to Puritan New England and only second to the rest of us. Faulkner and O’Connor represent the South but leave large portions of the country undocumented. Hemmingway and James always seem to have one eye on the rest of the world and how America interacts with it. Twain, perhaps, has characters that are mythic enough to embody America and not just some part of it, but his critical reputation is largely the result of only one of his works.
By way of comparison, consider the scope of Sayles’s work. We have the West (“Lone Star”) and the South (“Sunshine State”). We have the rural (“Honeydripper”), the urban (“City of Hope”; “The Brother from Another Planet”), and the wilderness (“Limbo”). We see characters abroad (“Casa de los Babys” and the tourists in “Men With Guns”) and provincially tied to one place (“Passion Fish”). We see black and white, men and women, lesbian (“Lianna”) and straight, the privileged wealthy (“Eight Men Out” and “Casa de Los Babys) and the struggling poor (“Matewan”). We see people with honest faith (“Matewan”) and honest doubt (“Passion Fish”), sometimes in the same film (“Honeydripper”). And I haven’t even mentioned the work he has contributed to films he did not direct.
Despite this range of subjects, Sayles’s ear for dialogue and human interaction almost never rings false. “He could play mud if you gave him a beat” Purvis says of a mythical first African-American with music in his bones. Sayles might not be able to get music from mud, but, like Walt Whitman, he can hear the varied carols of America singing. Given the performances of Glover, Hamilton, Charles S. Dutton, and Stacey Keach in addition to a soundtrack that positively pops, “Honeydripper” may be one of Sayles’ most accessible films, and it is to his credit that Sayles has managed to craft a film that may be a bit more commercially successful than some of his others without compromising or dumbing down his material.
In a summer and autumn in which the film world has lost two of its living legends, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, let us resolve to enjoy and appreciate the giants who still walk… and sing… and write… and film… among us.
My Grade: A
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.