Danny Glover Stars in Saga Set in Segregated South
It is 1950, in Harmony, a hardscrabble Alabama town whose name gives no hint that its color-coded caste system relegates blacks to second-class status. But despite the limitations of living under oppressive Jim Crow segregation, Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis (Danny Glover) has managed to eke out a decent living, at least till now.
He’s the proprietor of the Honeydripper Lounge, a juke joint which flourished during its heyday by selling cheap booze while catering to the tastes of a clientele which appreciated the blues. However, the establishment has failed to adapt to the changing times. Consequently, the bulk of Pinetop’s business has drifted over to its prime competitor, a shady shack featuring performers of a new genre of music that’s a precursor to R&B.
Finding himself on the brink of bankruptcy, Tyrone decides to book an out-of-town act in a last gasp effort to save the nightclub. Unfortunately, Guitar Sam fails to arrive on the train from New Orleans as arranged. So, the embattled owner comes up with the bright idea of hiring a drifter, Sonny Blake (Gary Clark, Jr.) to impersonate the legendary guitarist, since nobody knows what he looks like, anyway.
This is the overarching premise of the Honeydripper, the latest offbeat offering from the iconoclastic John Sayles. The front story of this music-driven, costume drama is curiously less compelling than the picture’s electrifying score and wince-inducing recreations of tableaus of a bygone era marked by subjugation and intolerance.
For example, we see how the hobo Sonny, upon his arrival in Harmony, is arrested on the spot by racist Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach), who charges the stranger with “gawking with intent to mope.” Without benefit of a lawyer or trial, the young vagrant is convicted by Judge Gatlin (Danny Vinson) who takes personal custody of the young man and puts him to work on his farm without pay, and indefinitely.
Sadly, such routine mistreatment and exploitation of blacks represents a generally unacknowledged aspect of America’s legacy. Ordinarily, a subject of nature is only touched upon humorously in cinema, ala Life, the Southern chain gang comedy co-starring Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy.
Danny Glover’s engaging turn as the protagonist of Honeydripper is matched by the equally-measured performances by Charles S. Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mary Steenburgen, Kel Mitchell, Sean Patrick Thomas and YaYa DaCosta. Plus, the production has been blessed with country cred courtesy of some gifted blues musicians, such as Keb Mo’ and Mable John, whose talents add immeasurably to the comfy auditory ambience.
Kudos to two-time Oscar-nominee Sayles (for Lone Star and Passion Fish) who has tackled themes of interest to the African-American community previously, both in his comic cult classic Brother from Another Planet and in the relatively cerebral Sunshine State. Here, he’s to be commended for again serving up a thought-provoking slice of African-Americana sans the shucking and jiving which Hollywood typically attaches to black-oriented fare.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for brief violence and suggestive material.
Running time: 123 minutes
Studio: Emerging Pictures