A Southern Tale Dripping With Stereotypes

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

Over the course of his 30-year career, writer-director John Sayles has come to be counted on as one of the most humanist, politically engaged voices in American cinema. In recent years, with such films as "Lone Star," "Limbo" and "Sunshine State," he also has become something of a regionalist, limning vivid portraits of the country's subcultures and their indigenous habits and habitats. Those movies have often been wonderful, which makes "Honeydripper," in which Sayles visits an American South drenched in myth, romance and stagy sentimentalism, such a disappointment.

Which is not to say it isn't ennobled by good intentions. "Honeydripper" opens in rural Alabama in 1950 where, in this fictional story, rock-and-roll is born. Danny Glover plays Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis, who runs a ramshackle roadhouse on the edge of town and who, for contrived reasons, won't allow guitars in the club. When a young wanderer mysteriously appears on the scene brandishing that very instrument -- electrified, no less -- Tyrone must decide if the kid and his newfangled contraption might just save the juke joint.

There's absolutely no questioning Sayles's passion and integrity when it comes to such subjects as race, history and music. It's just that, in the belabored universe of "Honeydripper," that's what they are: subjects. With names like China Doll, Maceo and Possum, the people in Sayles's story aren't characters as much as billboards, many of whom hew to some of literature and cinema's hoariest racial stereotypes, from a sexually voracious Jezebel, played by Davenia McFadden, to the Magical Negro in the form of an oracular blind guitarist played by Keb' Mo'. ("Honeydripper" features a fabulous cast, including Lisa Gay Hamilton, Yaya DaCosta and Charles S. Dutton.)

Preachiness has always been a weakness of Sayles's, and here it gets the best of him, as he shoehorns everything from the history of Pullman porters to the integration of the Armed Services into his painfully expository dialogue. Put simply, it's hard to believe a word of "Honeydripper." There's not a spark of spontaneity or soul about it; you can practically hear "Cut!" after every scene.

Trudging earnestly under a mantle of impeccable ideals and a fussy, too-quaint-by-half production design, "Honeydripper" lags and drags to an utterly predictable end. Gary Clark Jr., the Austin guitar whiz who makes an impressive debut as the teenage ax man in "Honeydripper," finally takes the stage in what should be an electrifying, exhilarating climax. But by the time he finally plays, it's too little, too late.

Honeydripper (123 minutes, at Phoenix Theatres Union Station) is rated PG-13 for brief violence and some suggestive material.

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