Dec 12, 2007

On The Great Debaters & Honeydripper

Two black themed period pieces hit American screens this December, one a self distributed indie by a Caucasian filmmaker whose iconoclastic independence and commitment to social conscience often dwarf the aesthetic value of his nonetheless essential films, the other perhaps the world’s most beloved Black movie star whose financial backers include the richest, most famous black woman in America. Neither film is without flaws, but John Sayles’ Honeydripper, the director’s best since at least 1999’s Limbo, is a more nuanced, playful and ultimately effecting picture than Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, although both offer potentially illuminating glimpses into mid century African-American life in the Jim Crow rural south.

Although they both flirt, as so much Black American cinema does, with causally linking African-Americans desire for agency and self-actualization to the legacy of white supremacy and the on going “struggle” for equality and self-determination, Mr. Sayles has made a unsentimental love letter to the blues and dramatized, as he’s done with precision time and time again the Return of The Secaucus Seven, the inner workings of a diverse community in the grips of ideological and social change, but this time buoyed by a gentle dynamism to go with his style’s typical economy. Mr. Washington on the other hand has retraced a significant moment in the history of African-American academia with clarity and skill, yet his crafty but insignificant aesthetic only draws attention to how depoliticized and safe his account of Wiley College 1935 debate team, who defeated Harvard’s mighty squad to become the first African-American team to win the national championship, really is.

Washington, with his patented swagger and charisma, stars as lefty history professor Melvin B. Tolson, who coached that team to such unthinkable success. He’s involved in organizing local farmers, much to the shigrin of the county sheriff and the Texas Rangers, who storm a legal assembly of the workers and proceed to beat the shit out of them. It also doesn’t go over so well with James Farmer (Forest Whitaker), the theology professor whose son is the youngest student at the college and a reserve member of Mr. Tolson’s debate team. In the ideological duel between the two men, the film resurrects the ole’ Booker T. Washington versus W.E.B. Dubois debate about the souls of black folk, although in this cases it’s the socialist who favors a grass roots, agrarian led collectivization movement and the image conscious theologian who favors the more cosmopolitan notions of a talented tenth and mutual compromise with bigoted southern whites.

The film is sunk by its reliance on syrupy overacting, mostly on the part of Washington’s young cast of debaters, who are each given opportunities to cry, to be the fish out of water, to be shot at by the KKK and to rail against the horrors of southern white terrorism in the palest of ivory towers, but oddly, the more delicate, insidious effects of racism are left merely subtextual, yet the only real subject the film could ever have. Denzel Whitaker has some nice scenes in which he’s allowed to pine unsuccessfully for the Jurnee Smollett’s Samatha, the debate teams token gorgeous yellow girl, and they will both have finer days in the cinema, but the majority of their material does them little service save allow them to audition for their next roles by displaying such “range”.

In Honeydripper, Danny Glover stars as juke joint owner Tyrone Purvis. Like many a Sayles protagonist, he’s a wounded and intelligent middle aged man trying to sort through a dense thicket of other people’s agendas and secrets, but he’s also something a Charletan and showman, a quality that allows Glover and his director a levity and daring in telling his story that both of their work has been lacking recently, freeing them from the constraints of didactism, the stifling factor in both Sayles’ Silver City or Bamako, a recent African film in which Glover has a small but crucial role.

Deep in an Alabama backwater, aided by his longtime sidekick Maceo (Charles Dutton), Tyrone’s club ties much of the non-churchgoing portion of the black community together, but deep in debt, Tyrone finds himself at the mercy of the landlord, the chicken supplier and the liquor wholesaler (Sayles). He’s also constantly dodging the harassment and shakedowns of the white country sheriff (Stacy Keach). In a last ditch attempt to save his business, Tyrone claims to have attracted the services of Guitar Sam, a legendary Delta blues player, for a one night gig that will bring in enough revenue to save the club. Sam never shows, so Tyrone has to improvise, and hires the services of Sonny, a young, gifted guitar player who, in this era long before Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, can impersonate a legendary musician no one, at least in this town, has ever seen.

Meanwhile his wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) works for a almost liberal white family, delicately rising dishes and shining silverware with her days. She’s a lapsed Baptist, much to the dismay of the local preacher who continues to court her to the church and remind the woman of the spiritual consequences of her spouse’s juke joint. The film gives real credence to her struggle with faith; she genuinely has her doubts about the moral standing her husband’s lifestyle leaves her in, but she doesn’t legitimately feel the presense of “God” in her life. This was a significant burden for an almost middle class black woman in 1950 Alabama the worse about her husband’s business prospects. Mary Steenbergen plays the middle aged southern matriarch whom Delilah labors for. The film makes clear in a series of scenes that they have a genuine interest in each other’s children, opinions and happiness, but that Delilah can only share the vaguest outlines of her troubles with Steenbergen’s character. They are mostly polite and courteous, perhaps sharing some lingering affection for each other that the awkwardness of their exchanges makes obscure, but they can never truly connect, even failing to bridge the gap that the power dynamics of race and class in the Jim Crow south has cut between them. The film’s subtly in making this clear is a rebuke to any number of Hollywood’s Civil Rights dramas, stocked with good intentions they are. The Long Walk Home this is not.

Glover and Dutton are just dynamite together, their folksy shorthand and smooth huckster exterior underlying an unwavering integrity the two share. Sayles nails the texture of these communities and never pauses to drive his points home, as he has so often done in the past, showing us the delicate peace existing between the communities in a place of little mutual understanding and willful exploitation, institutions weighing on the desires of the individual on both sides, all in the of the minority in the days beforeboycotts, marchers, assassinations and the Great Society.