John Sayles, the director, has been one of the most versatile figures on the American scene for more than 30 years. His leftist views and concern for social justice permeate his work, most of which is, in a broad sense, political. The recurrent themes are the relationship between private lives and public events, the effects of social change and the roots of present-day society in the past. This latest film is an immensely likeable, highly characteristic work pursuing many of these familiar concerns. It’s set in the Deep South in 1950, specifically in the strictly segregated small Alabama town of Harmony where things are far from harmonious. Remarking on the ironic name, the black porter at the whistlestop station says: ‘Only time I been in jail is in a town called Liberty.’
Honeydripper is ostensibly a simple tale, set against the racial segregation of Fifties Alabama, but it’s a film with a lot more going on beneath the surface. Sayles has taken the classic tropes of the rock ‘n’ roll fairytale (set in a period some time before the music would be called that) and has playfully embedded them in a story which also encompasses perspectives on religion, male unemployment, class prejudice, and the legacy of slavery. As well as the talented young drifter, the big-hearted girl, the mysterious blind busker and the resentful cotton picker, we meet a host of richly developed characters who bring their stories together into a powerful whole – and it’s all underscored by the music. Sayles’ regular Mason Daring has put together a soundtrack which would make this film worth watching even with one’s eyes shut.
Although Danny Glover gets first billing and delivers a complex, compelling performance as Tyrone, this is really an ensemble piece, with great work all round. Even difficult characters like the corrupt Sheriff come across as rounded and, in their way, quite engaging. Although there is naturally a good deal of tension and frustration surrounding issues of race, the prejudice within these groups is not ignored. One unfortunate character experiences bullying as much for his Midwestern origins as for the colour of skin, and there’s a touching vignette with a lonely housewife who reveals that she’s despised by many people as white trash. Other characters are isolated by their lifestyles, such as Stokely, whose financial dependence on a much older woman has become such a joke in the community that no-one seems to notice he’s in love with her. Meanwhile, Tyrone’s wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is under pressure to isolate herself from her husband and friends by surrendering her soul to Jesus.
Honeydripper is beautiful to look at – courtesy of Mike Leigh’s regular collaborator Nick Pope, even the cruel environment of the cotton fields is rendered beautiful. These glorious visuals complement its soundtrack and draw the viewer in to a world where the blues really could change a man’s fate. It’s the kind of film which rarely gets made these days and many viewers will find it spellbinding.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
John Sayles | USA | 2007 | 124 minutes | PG