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in Filmmaking
on Dec 30, 2007

Over at the Emerging Pictures blog, Ira Deutchman responds to Stephen Holden’s review of John Sayles’s Honeydripper, in which Holden finds stereotypes in the film’s 1950s’ Southern characters.

From the Deutchman blog post:

Why is it that every African American audience we show the film to is thanking us for its realistic portrayal? Is it that the Jim Crow era is just so loaded with baggage that it is not acceptable to portray a small story within that era without showing the lynchings? Is it that a white writer/director is tackling this subject?

I ask these questions merely to provoke some discussion. The real question is, do people show their own ignorance–and even racism–when they have a kneejerk reaction to a story that, while set in a certain time and place, is trying to get to something a little different from what is expected? Is the viewer the one guilty of stereotyping? I’d like to challenge Stephen Holden to see the film again. Perhaps the power of the individual characters in the film will be clearer once he is more familiar with the film’s own rhythms. And I’d like to challenge audiences in New York and Los Angeles to go check it out this weekend and come back here and tell me your thoughts.

Deutchman also quotes from Killer of Sheep director Charles Burnett, who posted on the Emerging blog after seeing the film this fall. Here’s what Burnett wrote:

“Honeydripper” is an appealing story set in the South and it is a fascinating account of a man, Pine Top, who is haunted by events in his past that keeps him from succeeding in the present. The story has many levels and it is a joy to watch Sayles, as he does in his other films, work socially relevant issues into his stories without compromising the narrative.

The story is unique. Things are not what they seem and yet, there is a connection with everything and everyone that creates a feeling of magic. The Ominous blind guitar player helps to create a surreal atmosphere. I was drawn to all the characters in the film. However, Danny Glover, who plays Pine Top, is so good that you think the Blues were written especially for him. Pine Top resonates. His desperation leads him to contemplate doing wrong to save his Juke Joint. His defining moment is when he contemplates stealing a dead woman’s ring off of her finger but can’t bring himself to stoop so low.

In the end, “Honeydripper” is a story about redemption. Sonny, played by Gary Clark Jr., is a fascinating character who finds himself at the doorsteps of Pine Top’s Honeydripper Juke Joint hoping to find a job playing his guitar, which is the only instrument that Pine Top hates.

In spite of where and when the story takes place, the story takes one on pleasant journey that shows us that people have to do what they have to in order to survive.

Deutchman starts his post with a trenchant comparison, noting Janet Maslin’s review of the pioneering New Queer Cinema picture Parting Glances in which she called the film out for a “parade of homosexual stereotypes.” He notes that the film died a quick theatrical death only to now be recognized for the great film that it is. Obviously, the same fate could occur to Honeydripper, and I really hope that won’t be the case. Ireally liked Honeydripper, had no problems with its pacing (Holden dubbed it “slow”), and didn’t feel the need to dub the characters either “archetypes” or “stereotypes.” In some ways, Honeydripper tells a familiar story (most movies, in fact, do), but it never felt to me that Sayles was just building his story from cultural tropes or self-consciously folkloric ideas. The emotional beats felt honest to me, and the music — wonderfully arranged and deliberately rough around the edges — provided all the necessary payoffs.

Honeydripper is currently playing in New York and L.A. and expands nationwide beginning mid-January.

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