I was eleven years old that September Friday afternoon as I walked home from school carrying my textbooks, each wrapped in grocery-bag brown paper and laboriously stenciled with its generic title: Geography, History, Arithmetic. The temperature was in the mid nineties, and the humidity made breathing feel like I was sucking air through a warm wet blanket. The sky was low and gray, the thunderheads rolling in from the south off the Gulf. Only to the north, out over Lake Pontchar-train, could I see a ribbon of robin-egg blue streaked with flowing wisps of white lace. I was walking the five blocks home at a brisk pace, hoping to beat the rain and get in a few World Series innings of Dodgers versus Yanks that was contested daily in my back yard by the neighborhood gang. And I was whistling. The weekend was here, and even if the rain drove us inside today, we'd be back at our game first thing in the morning. I had just reached my friend Bobby's house, and thought I might knock on his door to hurry him along.
I didn't hear them coming and wouldn't have thought to react if I had. But suddenly I was clobbered with a fist in the back of my head, just as two black boys, if anything a little younger than I was, sped past me on their bikes. I was staggered by the blow, as much from surprise as anything, and I stumbled forward, scattering my books into a skitter along the rough concrete sidewalk. The black boys, in blue jeans but shirtless, screeched their bikes to a halt in front of me and flung them on their sides into Bobby's front yard. "Nigger," one said, advancing toward me, his fists balled in front of his face. "Yeah, nigger," the other said. The two boys had close-cropped hair and dark, shiny skin, slick with perspiration from riding hard. They looked so much alike they were perhaps brothers, twins even, for they were the same size, neither as big as me. As they approached, one of them stepped up into Bobby's yard and the other into the street, instinctively cutting off my escape routes, I guess. "I'm going to hit you, nigger," the boy in the yard said, and he spit into the grass to emphasize his intention. The other boy spit too and said again, "Yeah nigger."
I would have fought to defend myself, but I was still too astonished to raise my hands when Bobby came screaming out of his house wielding a baseball bat, a plastic whiffle-ball bat actually, which would have made more noise than it would have inflicted damage had it been smacked into human flesh. But it never came to that. The odds changed, the black boys scrambled back to their bikes and pedaled off as quickly as they had arrived. "Hit you, nigger," one of the boys yelled as he sped away. Or perhaps he said, "Hate you, nigger." Either way, he didn't know that my father was a civil rights advocate and a devoted admirer of Martin Luther King, and little I could have done would have gotten me in more trouble than calling my attackers what they called me. "Stupid niggers," Bobby, whose family had not banned that word, declared as we watched them shrink out of sight. "Why are they calling you nigger? They're the stupid niggers, not you."
And so ended my first personal encounter with race hatred. The greatest damage was inflicted on my textbook covers, two of which had ripped and had to be replaced. My head wasn't even sore. For reasons I can't entirely explain, I never told my father about this incident. I know I didn't want him to think I had somehow instigated it. And yet, even then, I knew that in a way I had instigated it by never having complained when others used that word in my presence, had instigated it by being white in a world where 100 years after Abraham Lincoln was elected President, black people couldn't buy a hamburger at a dime-store lunch counter.
I grew up in the last years of the Jim Crow South. I hadn't started to school when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. the Board that racial segregation of public schools was inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. Nonetheless, I attended whites-only public schools from first through twelfth grade. The schools in my native New Orleans were officially integrated when I was in the seventh grade, but few historic white public high schools had meaningful numbers of black students until I was in graduate school.
A reeling panic of white flight kept New Orleans from really experiencing public school integration for longer than an eyeblink. Full integration didn't arrive until 1972, and by 1976 the Orleans Parish Public School System student body was over 95% black. The city itself, meanwhile, has undergone a comparable racial transformation. New Orleans was 68% white in 1950 and still 63% white in 1960. But accelerating white flight reduced the white population to 55% in 1970 and all the way to 41% in 1980. The 2000 census puts the white population of our city at just over 27%. The all-white neighborhood where I was accosted by two black boys when I was eleven is now an all-black neighborhood. The historically all-white neighborhood of professionals I live in now is one of the few in the city where whites remain in the majority. But there are two black families in our block, and I am certain that the longer we remain, the more black families will replace the white residents who are here now. Just across the city lines, the suburban areas where whites first fled in the 1960s have rising black populations as well. You can run, but you cannot hide.
Such is the changing face of our city. Such is the changing face of our nation. And I naturally think of these changes as I watch writer/director John Sayles' current Sunshine State and think back to his other two films, Lone Star (1996) and City of Hope (1991), which focus on the evolving racial and ethnic complexions of the American landscape. Sayles' message in all these films is that white, black, and brown alike, we all better figure out how to get along. Sayles' three films at issue deal with three different American communities with different kinds of problems in different parts of the country. The constant is the role that color of skin plays in each.
Hugging the Shore
Sunshine State tells the story of two adjacent Florida beach communities undergoing the wrenching transition from an economy of mom-and-pop motels and other small businesses to a corporate economy of high-rise condos, sequestered luxury resorts and high-income retirement developments. Delrona Beach is peopled mostly by whites while the citizens in Lincoln Beach are black. Lincoln Beach was developed in segregation days by a group of black professionals and businessmen as a resort for African-Americans who would otherwise have been excluded from the seashore. In the post-civil-rights era, however, Lincoln Beach has lost its purpose. And vacationers of whatever color skip Delrona Beach for posher places elsewhere on the Atlantic coast. Both towns are now in the gunsights of developers who want to buy the whole area for a new luxury resort that will include sundry and varied residential facilities outfitted with golf courses and other recreational features.
The human players in this drama are mostly grouped around two women, both about forty. Desiree (Angela Basset) is a modestly successful black actress who grew up in Lincoln Beach but now lives in Boston with her physician husband Reggie (James McDaniel). Desiree was sent out of town to reside with an aunt when she became pregnant by a Florida State football star at age fifteen. She has returned since only once, for her father's funeral, but she arrives now with quavering hopes for reconciliation with her stern mother Eunice (Mary Alice), who is raising Desiree's cousin Terrell (Alexander Lewis), a troubled teen who has been arrested for arson on more than one occasion.
Just up the road in Delrona Beach, Marly (Edie Falco in a magnificent performance) runs her family's motel. In her youth Marly performed in a water show and married a rock musician. Long divorced and significantly beaten down by life, she continues on a path she never chose, loyally following in her father's footsteps, too weary to nurture a personal dream. Marly's father, Furman (Ralph Waite), sneers at the developers who want to buy his land and business, but secretly Marly would like to sell and pursue a life of her own. In the meantime maybe a casual flirtation with landscape architect Jack (Timothy Hutton) will blossom into a true romance.
The two families in this tale barely interact, and in that way Sunshine State is not a formulaic study of racial discrimination and racial privilege. Desiree and her family members have certainly known racial discrimination, but Sayles is far more interested in how the problems in their lives are those of their own making. Determined to defy vicious stereotypes and to conduct themselves with dignity, Eunice and her departed husband have embraced formal respectability as a virtue greater than parental love. This has had tragic consequences, but like most sins in Sayles' universe, it is neither beyond understanding nor unforgivable.
Furman carries around attitudes of his segregationist past, but he's not an unreconstructed racist, and even in his advanced years he's capable of reflection, reevaluation, and growth. Somewhere he has no doubt crossed paths (and likely verbal swords) with Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs), Lincoln Beach's resident political activist. Lloyd has a great speech about how the end of segregation brought cherished freedoms at the cost of a kind of racial unity Lloyd misses, about how open economic opportunity has deprived black-owned businesses of a captive clientele. But central among Sayles' points is how much these two aging men have in common. For Furman counters with a compelling speech of his own about how contemporary progress is destroying the livelihood of small businessmen, black and white alike.
As in all his films, Sayles searches for the commonality in the human experience. Here we view with only mottled condemnation the careening endeavors of Flash Phillips (Tom Wright), the old football star who impregnated Desiree, now just a salesman and front man for the developers. And though Marly's boyfriend Jack is a high-ranking developer employee, Sayles paints him almost solely in a sympathetic light. In underscoring that Jack builds beautiful communities respectful of the local environment, Sayles distances himself from the inflexible strain of environmentalism that opposes any and all development.
Here, as in the other of his films under discussion, Sayles works on a broad human, if geographically local, canvas. There are many characters, each sketched with few but telling strokes. Earl (Gordon Clapp) is a suicidal banker with a gambling problem who solicits a bribe for his zoning board vote. Francine (Mary Steenburgen) is Earl's civic promoter wife who stages festivals in hopes of reinvigorating the area's declining tourism. Francine seems the kind of person that could smile in the face of an alligator bite, but behind her upbeat veneer, she's a puddle of self-doubt. Marly's mother Delia (Jane Alexander) runs the local amateur theater and works with troubled young people; she seems dizzy and absurdly high-minded, but she may just have the sharpest head for business on the coast. In short, people are a lot more complicated than they appear. Nothing is simple or direct. Both things and their opposite are sometimes true. Marly needs to get away, but Desiree proves that getting away requires coming home again.
As always, Sayles evinces palpable affection for his characters without romanticizing or condescending to them. In their failings, and most are failures in one way or another, they are all the pawns of forces beyond their control. For most, life will prove more discouraging than fulfilling. Hence Sunshine State's two enduring pieces of advice: Recalling the mantra of her water-show days, Marly says, "Keep that smile on your face, even if you're drowning"; and Furman recommends, "Always swim parallel to the shore, for no matter how strong you are, the undertow will pull you down." Sunshine State evinces more melancholy than Sayles has shown before, but it still manages to deliver such instances of stubbornly brave advice.
Remember to Forget
Sayles waxes somewhat more optimistic in Lone Star, the story of the people of Frontera, Texas, a dusty burg on the Rio Grande. The plot proceeds from the discovery of a skeleton buried in a shallow desert grave. After a short investigation, Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) comes to believe that the deceased is former Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), a notorious bigot and bully who disappeared under mysterious circumstances forty years ago. Moreover, Sam begins to suspect that Wade's killer was Sam's own father, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey). Buddy was Wade's deputy but had a violent argument with Wade shortly before Wade disappeared. Thereafter, Buddy succeeded Wade as sheriff and became through three decades in office perhaps the region's most popular political figure. In fact, a new courthouse has just been completed and named in Buddy's honor.
Buddy is no hero to Sam, however. Sam has grown up to become a man of gloomy disposition, and with time we discover why. As a teenager Sam fell in love with a Mexican girl, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pea), but Buddy forced the young couple to break up. Like many, perhaps most, Anglos of his generation, Buddy frowned on whites making romantic connections with either Hispanics or blacks. As a result of his father's attitude, however, Sam has approached middle age still pining for his high school sweetheart. In short, Sam has private motives for wanting to see his father pulled from the pedestal on which many in the community have placed him.
Still, other suspects for Charlie Wade's murder emerge in the course of Sam's investigation. Wade was such a vicious man, few who encountered him didn't develop motives for wanting to see him dead. He extorted money from all the area's businessmen. Thus, in addition to Buddy, Sam's suspects come to include Roderick Bledsoe (Randy Stripiling), the former owner of the local black nightclub, Otis Payne (Ron Canada), the nightclub's current owner, and Hollis Pogue (Clifton James), Frontera's mayor.
Fascinating as it is, the murder-mystery element in Lone Star is just a pretext for Sayles to promote a series of themes and examine a series of interlocking relationships. One theme has to do with the connection between fathers and sons. Sam has never forgiven Buddy for taking too active a role in his life. In contrast, Otis Payne's son Delmore (Joe Morton), now an army colonel and commander of nearby Fort McKenzie, has never forgiven Otis for being too little involved in Delmore's life. Determined not to be like Otis, Delmore has become intrusive, overbearing, and inflexible in relating to his own teenage son Chet (Eddie Robinson).
A second major theme has to do with the complexities of the democratic process, which, just as he also does in City of Hope, Sayles submits is an imperfect system. Here we might speculate about Sayles' conceivable tolerance for someone like politician Richard J. Daley who served as mayor of Chicago from 1955-1976. Daley was a compromiser and a nest featherer, and reformers hated him. But to his fans, Daley was judged to run the "city that works." Here, compared to Charley Wade, Buddy Deeds was a saint. He certainly never murdered anyone or even resorted to the kind of relentless physical menace that was Wade's thuggish style. Like Daley, Buddy did people favors and expected to be rewarded with political support. With his allies, Buddy did good public works like the new local dam and lake project. Of course, just as was true of Daley, Buddy's largely fair law enforcement and progressive public leadership came at a certain price. Buddy and his pal Hollis ended up with choice lakefront property, bought at a song. And Buddy put local jail inmates to work on such personal projects as a new patio for his home.
In City of Hope Sayles looks at a northern urban municipality about to change the color of its leadership from white to black. Here, in Lone Star, in semi-rural Texas, Hispanic voters and politicians stand ready to wrest control of Frontera from the Anglos. Mayor Hollis and Sheriff Sam are widely thought to be the last Anglos who will hold their respective offices. But a mere change in ethnicity hardly ensures more responsive government. The leading Hispanic politician is backing a plan to build a new local jail. The building project will create jobs, but it will also cost a lot of money. And critically, the new jail isn't needed. But such local Hispanic business leaders as Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) will probably back the plan, just as she's always cooperated with the projects of the longtime Anglo political leadership. Mercedes is an example of those who need to remember where they came from. She now refers to herself as Spanish rather than Mexican and huffs and puffs about the various faults of working class Hispanics, many of whom are illegal aliens. But Mercedes arrived in Texas as an illegal herself and has grown to her current situation of wealth and influence through an awful lot of good fortune.
First-time viewers often guess the identity of the murderer long before the end, and some even anticipate the final narrative shock Sayles reserves for the picture's denouement. But again, Sayles is far more interested in character and theme than in the twists of his plot. And in the midst of characters so flawed, one can't help but be struck by Sayles' stubborn hopefulness. However bad things are, he submits, they're getting better. Four decades ago an Anglo boy wouldn't even be allowed to date an Hispanic girl. Today a white man can sit in a public bar with his black lady friend and openly discuss marriage. In the 1950s Charley Wade could murder black and Hispanic people with impunity. Things got better under Buddy Deeds, and they're better still under Sam. But to continue to make progress we have to adopt a certain state of mind. On the one hand we have to remember our own suffering so as not to make others suffer in the same way. That's a lesson Mercedes definitely needs to learn. On the other hand, we have to set aside all the ancient grievances we have against each other. That's a lesson the whole human race needs to learn. The remarkable thing about that emblematic Texas battle at the Alamo is how differently it is viewed by people of different ethnicity, but oddly by brown and white alike, with abiding bitterness. And that's why Sayles ends his film with this imperative: "Forget the Alamo."
Yes and No, and Both
My favorite of these three much-admired films, City of Hope, begins with an episode to which I can obviously relate directly and personally. A white middle-aged jogger puffs through an urban park at twilight. Suddenly, without provocation, two black male youths leap on him. They curse and beat him. When he falls to the ground they kick him. Were he weaker and less fit, their fury is such they might kill him. Finally, however, he escapes, and the black teens are soon arrested. Should it matter that they are both the children of poverty, both reared in their city's most squalid slums? Should it matter that just minutes before accosting the jogger the two black teens were roughed up physically and psychologically harassed by racist policemen for the "crime" of being seen on the streets in a "white" shopping area? The answer Sayles provides is insightful, instructive and definitive. Should it matter? Without qualification, Sayles asserts: Yes and No.
In City of Hope once again, we are ushered into a labyrinthine plot peopled with a multitude of characters. The picture is set in the fictional metropolis of Hudson, New Jersey, and stems from the premise that cities are living organisms. As elsewhere Sayles urges the interconnectedness of things. Events that happen to the citizens in one part of town inevitably have repercussions for the citizens in every other part of town.
Like cities across the American landscape, Hudson is a municipality in transition. Its white population, dominated by Italian-Americans, is shrinking while its impoverished black and Hispanic populations are rising rapidly. However tenuously, though, the whites remain in control for the time being. Then into Hudson comes the possibility of foreign investment. A Japanese corporation, like the resort developers in Sunshine State, wants to buy a huge piece of Hudson real estate for urban redevelopment, and they demand access to the land immediately. That's a problem because the property is occupied by a series of high-rise tenements. If the Japanese get what they want, what happens to all the poor people whose homes (crummy as they are) the Japanese intend to knock down?
This bid for Hudson real estate is the first snowflake in what quickly becomes an avalanche of bribery, extortion, arson, and homicide. Trying to curry favor with influential Hudson politicians, the Japanese investors offer a substantial campaign contribution to the local District Attorney if he can solve the problem of the tenements. The D.A. opts to squeeze Hudson Mayor Baci (Louis Zorich). For years, the D.A. has ignored the corruption rife in Baci's administration. Now he threatens to prosecute unless the mayor solves the problems of the tenements. The mayor then leans on Joe Rinaldo (Tony Lo Bianco), the owner of the tenements. Joe is a Hudson contractor who has long prospered in the local building industry by providing kickbacks for union officials and noshow jobs for the deadbeat relatives of city administrators. The mayor's henchmen don't care what Joe has to do to get his tenants out of the desired buildings. But they insist that he do it—even if he has to set the buildings on fire. When Joe resists, the city turns its bureaucratic wrath upon him. Projects in which Joe has his entire future invested suddenly can't get the simplest code clearance. He must either do the mayor's bidding or be ruined financially.
Running contrapuntally to the real estate struggle are the efforts of Wynn Himes (Joe Morton), the lone African-American on the city council, to protect the black and Hispanic residents of the tenements from being forced onto the street. A former college professor, Wynn entered politics as a reformer. The longer he's in office, however, the more frustrated he becomes by a political system that seems to offer power only to those willing to play by the old corrupt rules. If Wynn wants more city-sponsored jobs for blacks, then he's got to cooperate with the mayor's programs. And that often means agreeing to policies that discriminate against the very people who elected him to office. Meanwhile, as Wynn struggles with the difficulties of making a place for himself within the system, he comes under increasing attack from black militants who accuse him of being the white man's stooge. Wynn's Catch-22 predicament is brought to abrupt crisis when the two black teenagers, Desmond (Jojo Smollett) and Tito (Eddie Townsend), residents in Joe Rinaldo's tenement buildings, are arrested for mugging the jogger in the park. The jogger turns out to be Les (Bill Raymond), a professor at the local university and one of Wynn's former colleagues. Wynn's sympathy, of course, lies with his friend. But his political future may lie with Desmond and Tito, for the teenagers falsely maintain that Les made a homosexual pass at them and that they struck him only in self defense. Wynn strives to learn the truth, but the militants are quick to fan the fires of resentment in the black community on the youngsters' behalf.
There are other stories in City of Hope as well, most notably that of Joe's son Nick (Vincent Spano) whose contempt for his father's entanglement in the city's web of corruption has manifested itself in drug and alcohol abuse and petty crime. Nick has recently become enamored of a young divorcee named Angela (Barbara Williams) but in so doing has incurred the violent wrath of her ex-husband Rizzo (Anthony John Denison), a Hudson cop with a yen to get close to the movers and shakers in city hall. It is Sayles' genius that he manages to intertwine Nick's and Angela's and Rizzo's stories so artfully and inextricably with the real estate deal and Wynn's attempt to prosper in the political system without sacrificing his soul.
Sayles himself plays Carl, a crooked garage owner who supplements his income with loan sharking and arson, while Sayles' longtime producer and romantic partner Maggie Renzie plays Connie, a hysterical white mother unable to see anyone's interests other than her own. A small but standout performance is also contributed by David Strathairn as Asteroid, a deranged homeless man, who embodies Sayles' devastating metaphor that sometimes the only ones who receive our society's distress signals are those we habitually and utterly ignore.
City of Hope captures the strategies of urban corruption and the temptations for moral failure as clearly as any motion picture ever made. And it does so without the self-righteousness so often associated with work of this kind. Sayles is obviously determined to show the human side of even his most reprehensible characters, a trait he exhibits elsewhere in the films discussed here and throughout his entire corpus of work. Mayor Baci is a grafter willing to turn a blind eye to murder. But in a visit to a retirement home Sayles also exhibits the mayor's warmth and evident sympathy for the aged. Joe is a slum lord and a political opportunist with connections to the Mafia. But there's no doubt that he loves his wife and children and, however misguidedly, has tried to do right by them. Sayles' own Carl seems the film's vilest character. But we can't help but note that he's a cripple who was betrayed as a teen by his best friend; thus, Carl's meanness is learned rather than innate. The film's good characters, meanwhile, are faced with daunting problems and the omnipresent need to make compromises.
Once again Sayles analyzes the world in elementally pessimistic terms and then responds to it with a gritty attitude of hopefulness. At the core of Sayles' political philosophy is an assertion of fundamental human decency. We may turn awry, but most of us possess the potential for redemption, and it is that quality we must call forth in one another in order to save ourselves from ourselves. Joe has clearly strayed too far to the dark side, but where and when is not easy to determine. If Wynn is to lead effectively, he cannot stand above the rough and tumble of the political process which is always soiling. The struggle to maintain his principles is thus never won but incessant, renewed in protean transformation with every passing day.
In sum, Sunshine State, Lone Star, and City of Hope are worlds with no absolutes other than the obligation of each human being to treat everyone else with as much consideration as possible. Yes, we live in conflict. But delineating aggressor from victim is often difficult and sometimes perhaps impossible, for there are as many sides to every story as there are characters in it. In my own life, were the young black boys who attacked me all those years ago wrong? Of course. I hadn't done anything to them. But did they have reasons? Had they tasted the vicious lash of racial discrimination from white people indistinguishable from me? No doubt. But were they still wrong? Yes. Was my young friend Bobby a racist? Absolutely. But was I glad he came to my rescue? Had we actually come to blows, would I have been glad to have him fighting at my side? You bet. And does any of this equation change if I subsequently discovered that Bobby had cursed and flung rocks at those black boys earlier in the day and that they had mistook me for him?