Arguably the greatest of American writers, William Faulkner was drawn to the human drama of the South, its growth, its decadence, its decay and its subsequent reinvention. Faulkner’s American pastoral was built on the historical drama that extended over almost a century from the beginning of the Civil War to the time of his death. That Faulkner has become so important to people of color is perhaps a testament to his patient humanity. With the possible exception of David Gordon Green (whose follow-up to George Washington, All the Real Girls, opens later this year), no other white male director has paid such close attention to the legacy of slavery in the South as writer-director John Sayles does in Sunshine State.
Sayles continues exactly where Faulkner left off, tackling the institutionalized racism that seethes in the New South, specifically in the fictional town of Delrona Beach, Florida, a capitalist-wary community trying to reconcile its past and tradition-free present. Buccaneer Days is the town’s yearly, five-day celebration of nothing, or, more accurately, Florida’s invasion by pirates. The film opens with the young Terrell (Bernard Alexander Lewis) setting fire to the festival’s main parade float, which lies adrift on a stretch of sandy beach that resembles the desolate golf course Murray Silver (Alan King) uses as a stage for his historical allocutions. Like Dr. Lloyd (Bill Cobbs) and the blind Furman Temple (Ralph Waite), Murray is so attached to the past and drunk on his own rhetoric to ever acknowledge that the past is obscuring his present.
The past is everywhere in Sunshine State but no one knows what to do with it. King, Dr. Lloyd and Temple can only talk about it. Terrell tries to fight it, taking a flame to capitalism’s romantic reconstruction of Florida’s violent history. Sayles calls the film’s capitalist conglomerate the Exley Plantations Inc. because, quite simply, it comes to represent institutionalized slavery. The company wants luxury hotels, malls and boardwalks to decorate the shorelines. The people of Delrona are easily exploited; indeed, they have so little money and, therefore, so little hope that retaliation becomes near impossible. Jane Alexander’s Southern belle Delia Temple (is this Sayles engaging Faulkner’s Temple Drake?) is a theater queen who takes the town’s troubled children under her wing. Unlike her husband, she has overcome the death of her twin boys, football heroes from the days when schools were segregated. In Delia, Sayles sees progress; by not living in the past she seems more aware of the present and, in turn, is capable of one-upping the capitalist expansion.
That Delia may have a few screws loose means, perhaps, that she has gone too far in the opposite direction of her husband. He’s too blind to run his hotel, handing it over to his daughter Marly (Edie Falco) and hoping that she’ll continue his legacy. He’s crippled by the memory of his dead sons and, therefore, cannot transcend his past. Delia has the expert legal expertise though she never addresses the death of her children and, so, her battiness becomes her ritual for denial. Marly occupies a comfortable middle ground, transcending tragedy by finding a sliver of joy in the death of her brothers. Sunshine State moves slowly, and rightfully so. Sayles understands the texture of the South, replicating in his narrative the lolling rhythm of Southern life. It makes the careful unraveling of backstory (the death of two brothers, the murder/suicide of an orphan’s parents) that much easier to taste. It makes Sayles’s incredible metaphors (capitalism-as-undertow, Terrell’s coffin for Delia’s stage production of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) that much easier to swallow.
Mary (Eunice Stokes), Terrell’s aunt, is also haunted by her past, so much so that tradition becomes difficult to maintain—she’s so blinded by pride that she’d rather buy her fried chicken at Popeyes than make it herself. And what with all the strained parent-child relationships and threatening shots of factories looming on the horizon, the drama of Sunshine State remains a quintessentially Southern one. Rather than keep her young pregnant daughter at home, Mary chose to save face by sending her away. Now older, Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett), like Faulkner’s Lena from Light in August, finds more than the father of her baby when she returns to Delrona. She confronts a different kind of racism when the Florida Flash (Tom Wright) hides opportunism behind humanitarianism. Sayles, though, has sympathy for all his characters. With the Florida Flash, the director shows how a broken dream can make a black man turn against his own people.
Sayles even throws in a clever reference to Darwinism, attacking capitalism by targeting Plantations Inc.‘s notion that progress can only be achieved by commercializing the landscape. Sayles’s agenda is a very leftist one yet his execution is so carefully and subtly pointed to ever rely on smarmy, easy answers. How does one go about acknowledging and reconciling the past without being blinded by its tragedy? Gordon Clapp’s Earl Pickney is so tortured by his work for Plantations Inc. that you’d think Sayles was punishing him by frustrating the character’s suicide attempts. Earl’s wife Francine (Mary Steenburgen) is frustrated by Delorna’s twisted sense of civic pride and, while Sayles spends entirely too little time with this couple, a final bedside sequence is particularly hopeful. During the film’s very spiritual finale, history is unearthed and saves the day, right around the time the characters of Sunshine State have all learned to tame it and grow parallel to it, rather than against it.