“Like a soul being carried away from this life”
Would you rather be beholden to a God who asks you to forsake all sinners and those holding you back from salvation or one who forgives and sees the good in humanity, striving hard to make up for mistakes of the past? And what constitutes a sin large enough to need repentance or bad enough to be left for the devil once the reckoning begins? Is vagrancy enough? How about a sheriff rounding up young black men to sell their sentencing to a judge who will make them cotton-picking slaves as opposed to inhabiting a jail cell all day? Or maybe a thief conniving to steal his own money and act as though someone else committed the crime, or perhaps ‘borrowing’ money saved for a child in the hopes its investment will yield a much needed profit? All these questions abound inside John Sayles’s Honeydripper, a juke joint set yarn in 1950 Alabama. They may all be wrapped up in a—as a friend watching said—frustratingly ‘tidy’ package, overly writerly and contrived, but they are there just the same.
I myself like to think whatever entity exists above us has the compassion to forgive. We make mistakes; we are merely human. Danny Glover’s Tyrone ‘Pinetop’ Purvis realizes this fact; his own past scarred with an event now told as rumored folklore to add an air of danger to his stern visage as owner of the Honeydripper. A piano player his whole life—one good enough to tour with some high-powered acts—he now finds himself off the road and playing to five or fewer people a night, backing up the old-fashioned voice of Bertha Mae (Mable John) as his wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) cooks in the kitchen, step-daughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta) serves to the regulars, and partner Maceo (Charles S. Dutton) mans the bar. Pinetop has the ambition to keep the place open if only to serve as another option against his rival across the way playing from the jukebox all night, but with a family to look after and bill collectors breathing down his neck, there’s only one last chance to turn things around.
Recording artist Guitar Sam is passing through Harmony, Alabama on his tour and has agreed to make a stop at the Honeydripper. It’s a touchy subject since Pinetop has a well-known aversion to guitar players—seen by his treatment of a young drifter named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) passing through, case in hand—but he needs money quick before he loses everything. And it’s not just the bar, his own wife Delilah is between churches and receiving sermons about leaving the people who are non-believers behind as she moves forward in her faith. Pinetop is concocting some pretty shady ideas and putting his trust in things he cannot control while she becomes more and more frustrated, polishing silver for a wealthy white family, (the subtle and kind Amanda Winship, played wonderfully by Mary Steenburgen), and bringing in more money than her husband’s enterprise. But, when confidence is at its lowest, an angel-like visage of a guitarist enters the fray. Possum (Keb’ Mo’) appears to Sonny, steering him towards the Honeydripper, and later materializes with cryptic words of wisdom to Tyrone as well, pushing them towards a collision course that will change both their lives.
The Lord works in mysterious ways and it seems this musical guardian steers the fearful onto a path of righteousness, without needing them to devote themselves to church—a fact learned by Delilah the hard way when posited with choosing her faith over her love. As such, it is Hamilton’s performance that pulls a lot of the film together despite her limited screentime. She is the voice of reason her husband wants desperately to follow while his needs as a musician battle with those as a husband and father, and she’s also the figure that could break everything apart. Delilah’s role at the Honeydripper is much more important than even she may imagine, not only being the rock for its owner, the shining ray of sunlight keeping Tyrone from falling deep into the hole of anger he found himself in the past, but also the lynchpin to underhanded deals made with Stacy Keach’s corrupt sheriff. Couple her with China Doll, a girl her step-father would do anything for, and you have conveniently placed characters with skills necessary to progress the plot, but also realistic portrayals to allow for the complexities of love on behalf of the patriarch.
And that in and of itself is a tough endeavor considering Glover acts the role. Never the greatest actor, I believe his turn as Pinetop could be one of his strongest. At times nuanced and contemplative, at others broad and clichéd, he needs to be both formidable and confident while also compassionate and worthy of our desire to see him succeed. Surrounded by great support like Dutton’s comic relief—aided by an hilarious Davenia McFadden, as Nadine, chasing him—and a side plot involving Kel Mitchell’s Junebug, Sean Patrick Thomas’s Dex, and Eric L. Abrams’s Ham to bring us full circle with Tyrone’s past indiscretions, we become invested in this world and those striving to succeed when it appears luck isn’t has left them stranded. Besides the fortuitous breeze—and Possum’s mystical powers—blowing in Sonny, (Clark Jr. is a highlight with his affable nature and complete joy at getting a chance to show off his homemade electric guitar), what becomes a dramedy of hope could have easily been a tragic comedy of errors. It may be easy and trite, but it also gets the job done with beautiful imagery and foot-tapping tunes.
 For better or for worse: Danny Glover and Lisa Gay Hamilton in John Sayles’ “HONEYDRIPPER” (Photo by Jim Sheldon)
 Ghosts from the Past: Keb Mo in John Sayles’ “HONEYDRIPPER” (Photo by Jim Sheldon)
 Enforced Labor: Kel Mitchell, Stacy Keach and Eric L. Abrams in John Sayles’ “HONEYDRIPPER” (Photo by Jim Sheldon)