John Sayles' leisurely portrait of mid-century African-American life in backwater Alabama is basically a "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" tale steeped in Southern atmosphere and the beguiling sounds of gospel, blues and fledgling rock 'n' roll — and that's not a criticism.
Harmony, Alabama, 1950: There are two juke joints by the crossroads just outside town: Former piano-man Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis' (Danny Glover, enjoying his best role in years) Honeydripper is the failing one. If he doesn't follow the lead of rival club owner Old Man Toussaint (James Crittenden) and replace aging blues performers like Bertha Mae (Mable John) with a well-stocked jukebox, Tyrone will lose the place. Everything is riding on the coming weekend and a one-night-only show by New Orleans' sensation Guitar Sam, who's guaranteed to bring in the crowds. With any luck, come Monday, Tyrone will be able to pay the liquor man, the landlord and maybe even the electric company. But everything that can go wrong does; even Tyrone's loyal wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) — who brings in more money by cleaning for Miss Amanda (Mary Steenburgen) than the Honeydripper ever has — is beginning to wonder whether the club is worth it, especially since the Reverend Cutlip (Albert Hall) condemns establishments that encourage drinking and dancing. Meanwhile, 17-year-old China Doll (Yaya DaCosta), Delilah's daughter, has fallen for the charms of itinerant guitarist Sonny Blake (Gary Clark Jr), who hopped off the southbound train and ran afoul of corrupt Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach), who sentenced him to picking cotton for a local judge. The familiar plot allows Sayles to stage a leisurely series of vignettes set in a South so untouched by post-war progress that it could be set 20 years earlier. There's a funeral and a tent revival; cotton pickers bicker in the hot sun; and soldiers do drills at the recently reopened army base. Tyrone's best friend and righthand man Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) gently deflects the forthright advances of fiery Nadine (Davenia McFadden) while locals gossip about Bertha Mae's fancy man (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and about Tyrone's past — they say he once killed a man.
Sayles' cast is packed with musicians (veteran pianist Henderson Huggins supplies Glover's piano riffs) and is rounded out with residents of Butler, Alabama, where the film was shot; together they lend an air of striking authenticity. Criticisms that Sayles fails to evoke the horrors of the segregated South miss the point; his film isn't about lynching or Klan raids. It's about ordinary people living in the shadow of nagging, day-to-day racism, and about the music that reminds them of what's right with the world rather than what's wrong. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh