HONEYDRIPPER 3 ½ stars Cast: Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Charles S. Dutton, Gary Clark Jr., Stacy Keach, Mary Steenburgen, Mabel John, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Yaya DaCosta Writer-director: John Sayles Distributor: Screen Media Films Rated PG-13
John Sayles’ 2007 “Honeydripper” has everything a serious filmgoer searches for in an independent film.
It features a gifted ensemble cast, including Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Stacy Keach and Lisa Gay Hamilton, and a story, set in a segregated small town in Alabama, circa 1950, that is both dramatically compelling and historically provocative.
It has great music, from gospel to blues and boogie-woogie to newly emerging rock ‘n’ roll, and a beautiful, sepia-tinged look.
Yet “Honeydripper” never opened theatrically in many markets, despite receiving favorable reviews around the country. That’s what makes its release this week on DVD (Screen Media Films, $27.98, rated PG-13) all the more important. For many, it represents the first chance to see an important new work from the filmmaker who has given us such significant, socially relevant movies as “The Brother From Another Planet,” “Eight Men Out,” “Lone Star” and “Sunshine State.”
In a statement on the movie’s unusually informative Web site (www.honeydripper-movie.com), Sayles writes: “I’ve always felt that the beginning of any new spirit or style in the world - in sports, art, religion, politics - makes for an interesting story. Who jumps aboard the new thing right away, and who decides, ‘No thanks, I’m sticking with what I know?’ What is the cost when you make either decision?”
(The DVD comes with an audio commentary by Sayles and interviews with the cast and crew, but they were not available on the early check disc I watched.)
“Honeydripper” takes place in the small Alabama crossroads town of Harmony, where Glover plays a former R&B piano player named Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis, a proud, powerful man who owns a run-down, failing club called the Honeydripper Lounge. Purvis and his partner Maceo Green (Charles S. Dutton) are drawing minimal crowds presenting an elderly 1920s-‘30s-style blues singer (played by real-life singer Mabel John) while a nearby juke joint is packing them in with up-tempo R&B and jump blues.
Purvis is also being squeezed on all sides and in every way: financially by a couple of African American gangsters he owes money to and by the town’s racist sheriff (Keach), who wants a piece of the action; spiritually by his wife, Delilah (Hamilton), who is torn between their life together and the calls of the church meeting nearby under a tent; and paternally by his love for his teenage stepdaughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), whom the family would like to send to beauty school.
In a last-ditch attempt to save his club, Purvis books an R&B star from New Orleans named Guitar Sam and sells a lot of tickets for the show. But when Sam fails to show up, Purvis turns in desperation to a young drifter named Sonny Blake (real-life guitar player Gary Clark Jr.) who has come to town with his home-made electric guitar and amp in tow to impersonate Guitar Sam.
This being a John Sayles movie, characterizations are as important as plot developments. And the characterizations go beyond the protagonists mentioned above to include a cross-section of Harmony’s populace.
We see a local economy based on cotton, picked by day laborers as well as by virtual slaves - men thrown into jail by the sheriff on spurious charges and then “sold” to work for a local landowner, the town judge, to pay off their sentences.
We also see Delilah working as a maid for a wealthy white woman (Mary Steenburgen), a minister (Albert Hall) preaching the gospel in a tent, African American soldiers at a nearby Army base, Pullman car porters at the railroad station, and a blind blues guitarist (Keb’ Mo) who comments in word and song on the goings-on.
“Honeydripper” unfolds slowly as Sayles takes his time telling his story and exploring the lives of many of his characters. As is always the case in his work, he avoids easy depictions and stereotypes. Even Keach’s sheriff, an evil man who uses his position to reign arbitrarily over Harmony’s African-American community - the emergence of the modern civil rights movement is still more than five years away - is portrayed in a nuanced, complicated manner, not completely lacking in humanity.
It’s a great treat to watch such consummate actors as Glover and Dutton, as best friends, sharing their thoughts, dreams and schemes, and Steenburgen and Hamilton talking to each other, affectionately but worlds apart as white matron and African American maid. And in young Clark, Sayles has found an actor and performer fully capable of representing something new, exciting and different.
Change is coming to Harmony, Ala., the South and America - if not now, if not for this generation, then in the near future. And John Sayles’ “Honeydripper” eloquently shows what Sam Cooke was thinking about when he sang:
“There’ve been times that I’ve thought I couldn’t last for long
“But now I think I’m able to carry on
“It’s been a long time coming
“But I know a change is gonna come.”