Honeydripper (US 2007)

Keb' Mo' as the mysterious Possum, the 'spirit' of the blues. (Is that a National steel guitar or a dobro? Sounds great either way.)

If there is anyone who deserves to be called an ‘independent’ it is John Sayles – or rather the working group that includes Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi, composer Mason Daring and several others (e.g. Mary Steenbergen and Tom Wright) who join for individual projects. Sayles’ films are unique in their conception and execution. They don’t follow fashion and in a sense they fall between the mainstream and the arthouse, pleasing professional critics in neither for much of the time. But they do please the small but discerning audience who pick them out. There are few other filmmakers who could do what Sayles does (write, direct, act and edit and then promote), but what is most important is that he asks questions through his actions. The two questions that arise with Honeydripper are: who says films have to be fast-paced and dramatic to be entertaining and why is it not possible to get films with an African-American cast of this calibre made (and distributed) on a regular basis?

The ‘Honeydripper’ is a modest music venue on the edge of a small Alabama town in 1950 in which a ‘magic moment’ – the arrival of a new young electric blues guitarist – acts as the climax of a story about the redemption of a central character played by Danny Glover. The central focus on a single character is unusual for Sayles. Not that there isn’t the familiar Sayles ensemble of characters whose narratives intersect, but they are all subordinate to Glover and none of the other narratives has the same depth or complexity (as in Lone Star, City of Hope etc.). Partly this is because the pace is so slow. Yes it is slow – noticeably so – but the pace allows some nuanced and warm playing, especially by Charles S. Dutton. I could watch him for hours and I was reminded of the sheer pleasure of his performance in Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune. Not only is it slow, but there is little dramatic narrative action. Instead there is a tension about the iniquity of the Jim Crow situation and the economic pressures on the Glover character that runs through the whole narrative keeping a kind of sharp edge, but never pushing the narrative to a dramatic climax.

I think that Sayles could improve his films by not doing the editing himself. Things could be tightened up a little without losing the overall pace. But I wouldn’t like to lose the minor diversions. I loved the two young boys who wander into scenes and who play with their dummy musical ‘instruments’ and the incidental anecdotes about the origins of black music and the sly jokes about the mythology of the blues. Sayles is a clever writer and I was intrigued by the two sequences between the white characters (the sheriff and the ‘poor white’ woman made good) and the central black characters. Sayles doesn’t openly criticise the Jim Crow world. Instead he let’s us observe its impact and he portrays the white characters as quite complex. Does the sheriff turn up at just the right moment to save Glover (even while he is exploiting him)?

The reflective tone is also a consequence of the look of the film – a warm nostalgic glow (although I did wonder if some of that was derived from the digital print I watched which in some of the night time scenes seemed to lack sharpness and contrast) and the overall refusal of a realist aesthetic. So, some of the picturesque scenes were just too beautiful, others too ‘clean’ and others had a pronounced ‘theatrical feel’. I take all of this to be deliberate, but the clincher is the presence of the blind blues guitarist who seemingly appears only to the young man and to Pinetop (Glover). This character is the ‘soul’ of the blues, the ghost of previous musicians and acts both as Pinetop’s conscience and the younger man’s mentor.

I saw Honeydripper in the week of Bo Diddley’s death and it was noticeable that Sonny’s homemade electric guitar was square just like Bo’s. I confess that I had expected much more emphasis on the supposed ‘creation of rock ‘n roll’ in the film. But there was plenty of music, including the gospel tent singing and the references back to the big bands that were part of Pinetop’s career. As I came out of the screening, I overheard at least a couple of people saying that they hoped there would be a CD. I’ve always had plenty of time for Mason Daring’s work, so I hope they do manage to sell a few soundtrack albums.

The second question that Sayles prompts concerns the paucity of African-American films in wide distribution. From the online complaints, I gather that Sayles has struggled to get distribution in the US and according to IMDB and UK Film Council stats, it would seem that the UK launch on 18 screens almost matched the US platform release at its widest point of 19. I’m guessing that the digital print in the UK had some UKFC support. We don’t get African-American films (by which I mean those with African-American cultural content as a narrative focus) very often in the UK and their release is usually restricted to around 30 prints in the major cities. We are still waiting for Denzel Washington’s second directorial feature The Great Debaters and it will be interesting to see what kind of release that gets if and when it arrives. I wonder what would happen if Denzel and Forest Whitaker were prepared to work with Sayles on the kinds of budgets he can raise? Honeydripper reputedly cost $5 million mostly raised by Sayles and Renzi themselves. Looking back, some of the most interesting African-American stories and characters that I can remember have been in Sayles’ films, including James Earl Jones in Matewan, Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish and Joe Morton in Lone Star and many others. It was bell hooks in Reel to Real (Routledge 1996) who allowed that Sayles created more radical black characters than many more conservative black filmmakers. I’m not sure that Honeydripper works overall, but I do think that the range of representations of characters and community and the insights into aspects of African-American cultural history mean that it deserves to be more widely seen and studied.

Here’s a useful interview with John Sayles.

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