Written, directed, and produced by John Sayles, Honeydripper (2007) is set in 1950s rural Alabama. It begins as one of the slowest and least convincing films I've seen in a while, though gradually it gathers momentum. One issue I have with the film is historical accuracy—a question of representation. I do not know enough about rural African American life in Alabama in the mid-20th century to judge the realism of this film. It does show that life was hard for rural blacks: they are always scrimping to get buy, many of them work in the cotton fields or other menial jobs, including domestic work for white people. The local sheriff (played by Stacy Keach) seems to have complete control of the county, especially of the African American inhabitants. He arrests them when it suits him and puts them to work in a local cotton field and in general asserts demagogic authority. Unfortunately, he looks and acts so much like the Buford T. Justice character portrayed by Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit that it is difficult to take him seriously. Other characters in the film are not so stereotypical. All the African American characters are individuals. The film in some way reminded me of Idlewild, a stylized and in some ways fantastical portrayal of rural African Americans in the South, but Honeydripper is not a musical and it is more deliberately realistic.
There are many melodramatic aspects to Honeydripper. The main character, Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) is struggling to keep his juke joint (the Honeydripper Lounge) afloat as he loses business to another juke joint nearby that features more contemporary music that appeals to young folks. Purvis' place features traditional music. We see in the film that Bertha Mae (Mabel John) is performing at the Honeydripper, but virtually no one is there to listen to her. She is a blues singer in the 1930s style of someone like Bessie Smith. Tyrone wants to be loyal to Bertha Mae, but he also wants to keep his business afloat, so he makes plans to replace her with a performer from New Orleans known as "Guitar Sam." He hopes Guitar Sam's popularity will help him pay off his debts. Tyrone is a former blues piano player himself who many years before engaged in a knife fight that apparently ended his performing career. He is married to a pious woman named Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who is on the verge of declaring her faith to the local preacher. Their daughter, China Doll, has a weak heart. And so on. Tyrone owes money to everyone and is on the verge of becoming desperate.
Danny Glover seems to be going through the motions in this film. He's flattened and depressed throughout most of the early scenes, weighed down by debt and a distanced relationship with his wife and worries about his business. He shows little energy until towards the end, when he concocts his scheme to save the Honeydripper. Does he have any other source of income? He's supposed to be a fiercely independent man. The sheriff recognizes the fact. Tyrone berates his wife for working for the white wife of the white mayor. Yet he doesn't hesitate to go to the white sheriff when he needs a favor, and even enters into a business arrangement with him when he believes it will save the business.
One of the problems with representation in this film is the apparently middle-class lifestyle of Tyrone and his family. Even though he is deeply in debt, his wife and daughter dress well, and they don't seem to be impoverished. Where does their money come from? Purvis doesn't make enough from the Honeydripper to pay his debts. His wife works as a maid and earns little income. Everyone in the film dresses in relatively clean and nice looking clothes, though they live in shacks and appear to have limited means. What am I missing here? Is the film inaccurate or idealistic in representing the lives of the characters in this way, or is it simply suggesting that what money they have goes to dressing suitably?
Tyrone's daughter China Doll is a glimmer of light in this film. So also is Sonny (Gary Clark, Jr.), a drifter who passes through town and is arrested by the sheriff as a vagrant and put to work in the cotton fields. Sonny and China Doll are drawn to each other right away. Sonny also claims to be a singer, and when Guitar Sam doesn't show up on the day he is supposed to play at the Honeydripper, Tyrone hires Sonny to impersonate him. Sonny plays an electric guitar with an old-fashioned amplifier and speaker. In a sense his music represents the passing away of old traditional musical forms represented by Bessie Mae (who actually dies in the course of the film) and the newer forms that replace them. In the final scene we discover how well Sonny can play and sing (the actor himself is a modern-day bluesman). What the scene seems to suggest is that newer musical forms—electric and modern though they may be—continue and revitalize the traditions they replace.
In the end, the film comes to life. But it takes quite a while to get there. The moment itself is a kind of stereotypical cliché: music solves all the problems of these happy African Americans down on the old Southern farm. Just start playing the piano and strumming the guitar and dancing and all those trials and tribulations fall away. If that seems offensive, perhaps it should. The logic of the scene, as much a relief as it is, is not entirely consistent with the rest of the film, or with reality, either.