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'Honeydripper' Paints Portrait of 1950s American South


A sleepy southern U.S. community in 1950s Alabama is about to get a jolt. America's civil rights movement is dawning and rhythm and blues is reaching into the backwoods. The new movie "Honeydripper" by filmmaker John Sayles is about those times. VOA's Penelope Poulou has more.

A rundown music joint in the woods outside a small town called Harmony becomes an unlikely stage for change in the old, segregated American South.

Tyrone Purvis is an old bluesman and a proud entrepreneur. He has a lot to lose if his juke joint, the Honeydripper, does not get some serious crowds this weekend. Shady lenders are on his back. They want to get paid, or they will snatch away his business. So Tyrone lets the word out. Guitar Sam from New Orleans is coming to play exclusively at the Honeydripper.

But Sam is a no-show. Instead, a starry-eyed guitar player, fresh out of the army, arrives in Harmony.

Sonny arrives just in time to save Tyrone. But before he has the chance to play, the local sheriff arrests him for vagrancy. He does his time at the local cotton plantation. Tyrone tries to bail him out, and the corrupt sheriff smells a deal. He asks Tyrone to pay fifty dollars for Sonny's release.

In "Honeydripper," as in many of his movies, John Sayles focuses on small-town characters. In this case, most of them are members of Harmony's black community. The owner of the Honeydripper, Tyrone Purvis, is played by veteran actor Danny Glover. His religious wife Delilah must choose between the gospel or her husband's earthy lifestyle. The young guitarist Sonny symbolizes change. And Tyrone's lovely daughter, China Doll, dreams of a career as a hairdresser. Sayles throws light on these people and how they coexist with whites in the racially divided American South.

"Things in the South were very personal," says the director. "They may not have been good but they were personal. You knew somebody's father. You knew their grandparents. There were people in town who had your name when they were a different color than you were. And you knew why. You didn't speak of it," he smiles.

Director Sayles says the music is an organic part of his story.

"After World War Two," he says, "there are fast cars, and airplanes and rockets were going off and just life was speeding up. The world got noisier. And so, the music got noisier and more busy and a little more assaultive."

Although a northerner himself, John Sayles says the South has made a deep impression on him since he was a kid. "I was born in 1950, which is the year that 'Honeydripper' is set and I had relatives in the South. We used to either drive or take the train all the way down to Florida to visit them. So I remember people picking the cotton, which even from the train window looked like awfully hard work. I remember the colored drinking fountains and the white drinking fountains, two of everything," he concludes.

But "Honeydripper" does not dwell on the pain and indignities these injustices caused. Instead, it expresses the joy that permeated the lives of black people in the South. Although most of the leading characters are actors, some are established musicians, such as rhythm and blues guitarist Keb Mo. He plays Old Possum, who symbolizes the spirit of the music of another day. Texan Gary Clark Junior plays Sonny, whose electric guitar strums the beat of a new day. This is a small independent movie with a big heart.

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