Writer-director John Sayles could be called a lot of things—an activist, a humanist, a versatile chronicler of social ills past and present—but the first tag that comes to mind is "earnest," which doesn't always work to his advantage as a filmmaker. Since Return Of The Secaucus 7 in 1980, he's quietly forged his own path in independent filmmaking, making substantive movies that even at their best (Lianna, Matewan, Lone Star, Passion Fish) are dogged by an awkwardness that goes hand-in-glove with his seriousness of purpose. For all his good qualities, Sayles has never been much of a sensualist, and that's the problem at the root of Honeydripper, a story about a '50s roadhouse in rural Alabama that requires a little heat to get the joint jumpin'. It needs to be electrifying, and instead, it's a John Sayles movie.
Still, the film has plenty of redeeming qualities, starting with a daunting ensemble of first-rate African-American character actors who keep the action from flatlining entirely. Danny Glover does subtle work as an aging piano man and owner of a failing roadhouse called the Honeydripper, which has had most of its live-show customers siphoned off by a more popular juke-joint down the street. Deep in debt to his landlord and the liquor man, Glover and right-hand man Charles S. Dutton hatch a plan to bring rising R&B; star Guitar Sam to the club for a one-night-only bonanza. When that plan starts to go south, they turn to a young Robert Johnson-like stranger (Gary Clark Jr.), who claims to know Guitar Sam's work backward and forward. And he's brought along a curious instrument: an electric guitar.
Though Glover's efforts to save his business are central to Honeydripper, it's only one of many subplots that constitute Sayles' sprawling tapestry of a cotton-picking country that seems permanently insulated from progress. Some other drama plays out on the cotton fields, where the local sheriff (a glowering Stacy Keach) makes up charges to force black men to harvest for a pittance, and in the Glover home, where his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) considers abandoning him for God, and his daughter (Yaya DaCosta, of America's Next Top Model) makes eyes at Clark Jr. There are precisely zero surprises in how things play out—the main thread is basically Big Night revisited—but the film gets better as it goes along, and it closes with a rousing musical flourish, as immensely charismatic newcomer Clark Jr. finally hits the stage. At last, Sayles' sleepy drama wakes with a start.