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John Sayles, our most political filmmaker, talks about his new novel.

November 17, 2011

Watching John Sayles on stage at the Miami Book Fair last night, I couldn’t help but recall the time when I told him to give up this movie nonsense and follow his true calling: writing fiction.

Not to suggest Sayles and I are pals or anything. I’ve met him just the once, 20 years ago when he was on tour for his novel, Los Gusanos, but I was so taken with this long story of one family of Cuban exiles that I went around telling everyone I met that he was a better writer than film director.

Miami Book Fair International continues today with journalist Ron Suskind at 6 p.m. and novelist Dorothy Allison at 8. For a complete schedule, visit the fair’s website.

Sayles was generous enough to take this advice as the ironic complement it was meant to be. He chuckled, instead of getting up and declaring the interview was over.

Now I’m pleased to see that Sayles has at last followed my suggestion. Sort of. Oh, all right. At least he’s finally written another novel, A Moment in the Sun, though, of course, he hasn’t given up making pictures. In fact, he has a new, semi-related movie out right now, too, titled Amigos.

Last night Sayles explained that the period 1897 to 1900, covered extensively in the novel, and on a smaller canvas in the movie, is a hinge moment in American history.

“Americans went from thinking of themselves as champions of liberty in Cuba to a few months later killing Filipinos to take the Philippines from Filipinos,” Sayles said.

In other words, it was the time when Americans accepted their new status as an imperial nation, and building an empire.

“A lot of Americans didn’t like it,” Sayles said. “There was an Anti-Imperialist League. Mark Twain was one of them.”

Another key turning point: The Wilmington Coup of 1898, in which white supremacists ran the elected government out of town, massacred black residents, and ended North Carolina as the last Southern state in which black people had voting rights.

Sayles covers these three signal events — the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the Wilmington Coup — in his new novel. The title comes from the famous quote by W.E.B. Dubois, who said, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back into slavery.”

Racism, Sayles says, united all three — a deep belief in a world hierarchy with Anglo-Saxon white people at the top. He noted that Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, The White Man’s Burden, is cast as a note form an older empire passing along the torch to a younger. It’s subtitle: The United States and the Philippine Islands.

And yet, with all those battles and dramatic events and historic characters to draw upon, Sayles chose to read a quiet section from A Moment in the Sun in which almost nothing happens — a lector reads newspapers to a room of Ybor City cigar rollers while thinking how the different people in the room — Cubans, Spaniards, men, women, would receive the news.

It was an inspired selection. Sayles is such a patient, skilled novelist he almost instantly put us in the room, more than a century ago, with the cigar makers, their anxieties and hopes. If he can do that when all the action is internal, then he can certainly handle a battle scene or a discussion involving Mark Twain, who is a character in the book.

Sayles described Amigos, which opens in Miami today, as only the third movie ever made about the Philippine-American War. It is set in a remote village occupied by a small platoon of American soldiers.

Sayles did not deliver prepared remarks, but spoke in response to questions from the audience. Somewhat to my surprise, given his stature as the most important independent filmmakers of the past 30 years, many of the questions were about writing.

As I sat there listening to him talk about the new book and the new movie, and his researching and writing process, and how writing a screenplay differs from writing a novel (the sun never fails to show up on cue in a novel), and how every novelist should take at least one acting class, I suddenly saw exactly how wrong I had been lo those two decades ago.

Sure, he might have written 10 or 15 great novels by now, but I thought of the John Sayles movies I most loved, and how much they meant to me:

Matewan, about the massacre of Blair Mountain, when coal miners and strikebreakers battled like armies, is one of the two or three best movies set in Appalachia ever. Eight Men Out showed me how the 1919 Black Sox scandal was not so much about cheating as about the oppression of baseball players by rapacious owners.

Even a suspense thriller like Lone Star, perhaps Sayles’ least political picture, benefits from a subtle multicultural awareness that gives the movie a rare texture and intelligence.

Suddenly I wanted to stand up and thank John Sayles for being a consistent, coherent progressive voice in the crass realm of popular entertainment.

Of course I did no such thing. It’s bad form for a reporter to take the microphone when there are civilians in the room, wanting to ask questions. Besides, such an outburst of public enthusiasm would have been professionally embarrassing.

Sayles ended on a ┬ámodest note, saying, “I don’t get that many good ideas,” so he can’t promise when or if he’ll write another novel.

“It’s a commitment to write a novel,” Sayles said. “It’s work. I make my living as a screenwriter. I┬ádon’t need to write another book.”

He added. “If I never write another book there will still be authors here next year.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2011 11:16 am

    “The Brother From Another Planet” – classic…

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 21, 2011 11:05 am

    Indeed.

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