Honeydripper (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

John Sayles is one of the last true independent American filmmakers. Honeydripper is his 16th feature and he has made all of them on his own terms without studio interference. (He sells them to distributors once they are in the can.) To date, his most commercially successful has been Lone Star and his most controversial, Limbo. His body of work is incredibly diverse but if there's a common thread, it's a focus on character. No matter what issues - social or otherwise - his movies tackle, they do it with real, three-dimensional people. That characteristic is in evidence in Honeydripper, a story about race relations and the beginnings of rock 'n roll in 1950 Alabama.

The movie unfolds in the small town of Harmony, in and around the Honeydripper nightclub, one of two watering holes in the area. The Honeydripper is going under. Its live music - a blues singer accompanied by a piano - is no longer in vogue. The young people like the jukebox and lively atmosphere at the Honeydripper's rival bar. The owner of the Honeydripper, Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover), is in debt and at risk of losing everything. He bets his entire future on one gamble: bringing in popular recording artist Guitar Sam from New Orleans for one night. He hopes he'll make enough money to clear his debts, pay Sam, and get people interested in the Honeydripper again. Meanwhile, Tyrone has to worry about losing his wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), to a sect of evangelical Christians, and he has to appease the local racist sheriff (Stacy Keach) who keeps a watchful eye on him.

A few days before Tyrone's big event, a young guitar player, Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), arrives in town looking for work. Tyrone doesn't give him a job but he offers him a meal. Soon thereafter, the sheriff arrests Sonny for vagrancy and puts him to work in the cotton fields, working off his sentence. But Sonny and Tyrone are not done with each other. Their paths will cross again in a meaningful fashion, much to the delight of Tyrone's teenage step-daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta).

The plot is a basic melodrama, but there are a lot of hooks hanging from it. The first is the understated exploration of race and racism in this situation. The story is told from the point-of-view of the black lead characters and we see their circumstances contrasted with those of the whites. The sheriff is the token racist authority figure but, while he's not sympathetic, Sayles takes care not to paint him as a villain with a black hat. He abuses his power but he doesn't go as some might (and historically did). Sayles' portrait of Harmony does something few movies attempt by showing not the graphic, violent side of racism but the insidious, corrosive kind.

The there's the birth of rock 'n roll. It doesn't happen in Harmony, but the Honeydripper and places like it were key to the rise of this new form of rhythm and blues. "Rock around the Clock" is often cited as the first major recorded rock 'n roll hit (although some debate that), but by the time Bill Haley & His Comets recorded in it 1954, this type of music was already well established in nightclubs and other hang-outs. Here, we see it earlier in its genesis, in the black deep South where it found life. Music is very much a part of Sayles' story and it is critical to the upbeat final act.

Sayles rarely gets big stars for his movies but he often hires familiar faces - solid character actors who can inhabit their alter egos. So it is that Danny Glover becomes Tyrone, a man with a dark secret in his past and who fears the future. Charles S. Dutton is his best friend. Gary Clark Jr. exudes energy as the guitar player who, from the fringes of poverty seeks the allure of fame. Lisa Gay Hamilton turns in an interesting performance as a woman torn between the love of her family and God's calling. Stacy Keach softens the racist sheriff's edges a little. He's not as bad as some lawmen in this part of the country were during this decade. And relative newcomer Yaya DaCosta gives a touching portrayal as the vulnerable, idealistic China Doll.

With Honeydripper, Sayles has done what he always does: bring together a group of characters and allow us to relish their interaction. His affection for the characters is both obvious and infectious. We like them, warts and all. The story becomes their playground and, although it does nothing extraordinary or ambitious, it is nonetheless involving. And, unlike in Limbo, Sayles doesn't leave us hanging. He ties up every loose end, provides us with some great music, and gives us a reason to leave the theater smiling.

Honeydripper (United States, 2007)

Director: John Sayles
Cast: Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DaCosta, Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Gary Clark Jr., Stacy Keach
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Music: Mason Daring
U.S. Distributor: Emerging Pictures
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1