Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Honeydripper


Elegantly adapted by writer-director John Sayles from his short story “Keeping Time,” Honeydripper is classic Sayles cinema: an insightful sketch of assorted common folk whose criss-crossing dreams and agendas unfold against larger, more powerful (and sometimes crushing) sociopolitical and cultural forces. Though steeped in race and class consciousness, the film is never dry or preachy; it makes many of its most salient points with the gentlest touch. Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) is a retired blues musician in the late ’50s American South, struggling to keep his live-music jook-joint afloat in the face of a new spot directly across the road that features a jukebox playing newfangled rock & roll. His wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who works as a maid for a wealthy white family, is in the midst of a crisis of faith that stokes household tensions over how Tyrone earns his living. Meanwhile, a racist sheriff (Stacy Keach) and a landlord who’s trying to sell the Honeydripper Lounge out from under Tyrone seem to strip him of options. Then a young musician with a jerry-rigged electric guitar shows up at Tyrone’s door. Tucked into the plot twists and pushed forward through dialogue that perfectly captures accents and era — some of it lifted from old blues songs — are a host of still-relevant issues: the quotidian racism that buffets the creation, reception and selling of race music; the tensions that arise when new Negro creativity threatens to wipe out past Negro history and culture; the ingenuity big business shows in coming up with new ways to replace slave labor; the economic strife at the root of so much domestic turmoil in poor black families. Sayles unfolds these concerns with grace and lots of humor — it helps that his cast is uniformly good, often excellent — and he doesn’t play things easy with regard to race. A scene between Delilah and her boozy boss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen), in which the white woman tries to bond, inadvertently spilling forth the misery of her life and her obliviousness to Delilah’s, treads familiar territory but peels back clichés to find truths across barriers. Time and again in Honeydripper, situational tension is fractured by Sayles’ universal compassion.

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