John Sayles and Working-Class History

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Nora Ruth Roberts

IT COMES AS no surprise by now to anyone who has been following the career of the important American filmmaker John Sayles that his professional origins derive from the new wave of leftism of the 1960s generation, and that his work continues to be informed by the interests of that generation.

Indeed one of his earliest stories, the signature story in the “At the Anarchists’ Convention” collection (1979), is a warmly rollicking satire of the Old Left at a convention of lost causes and has-been red-flag wavers, told in a deft, affectionate riff style that Sayles has never quite pulled off in subsequent work.

More’s the pity. His work could stand a bit more self- poking humor-especially at the foibles of the left.

The hype about Sayles’ first film, “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” (1980), promises a similar tweaking tease at the generation of sixties radical activists.  Approaching the turning-point year of thirty, they gather at a reunion in a small town near Boston for a weekend of hugs, nostalgia, basketball, mutual commiseration.  There is also a mutual quiet self-congratulation as most have been successfully incorporated into the system as drug counselors, high school teachers, women doctors, etc. Even they whisper, not entirely guiltily, about co-optation.

For the purpose of understanding Sayles’ relationship to the New Left generation from which he emerged -and, importantly, to his consistent exploration of the situation of the modern American working class-the shenanigans of the reunited activists take on primary significance when seen against the backdrop of those on the margins who, close as they may approach, are never really included in the now-middle-class “in crowd.”

These are the working-class guys who stayed behind, not going to college, working dead-end jobs as grease monkeys and combinations of clerking and delivering.  One is played by Sayles himself, and the other, Ron, by a Sayles regular, David Straithairn.  The Sayles character is married to a high-school sweetheart Barbie-doll type, and now has three kids to support, mostly reluctantly, but stoically accepting his lot, and just once rather poignantly suggesting a capacity to marvel at the life he has brought into the world, a subtle counterpoint to the fact that none of the Secaucus crowd have borne fruit.

The irony is played low-key, but is a crucial aspect of the film. Not only have the Secaucus reunion group been as they themselves admit, “co-opted” into middle-class lives, now their attitudes, their priorities, and even their cultural modes, once ersatz poverty, set them apart from the working- class guys.

The lone female doctor does sleep with Ron, the grease monkey, in a sleazy hotel where the Sayles character is on night duty at the desk. Even in this case, clearly the doctor is lonely and just wants to get laid. The fact that she goes with the grease monkey underscores rather than minimizes the basic cultural disparity.  She does it as an act motivated more by self-dare than desire or even affinity-what used to be called “slumming.”

This concern with the ironic disjunction between the sixties student “radical” activists and the indigenous working class that were the key subjects of 1930s radicalism constitutes a theme Sayles initiated both in his first story collection and in his first novel, “Union Dues” (1977).

Thus, “Secaucus Seven” begins a trajectory that puts a large span of Sayles’ wide-ranging film work into place.  Lianna could not have become a lesbian and made her break (downscaling rather painfully into the working class) were it not for the gender-equalizing freeplay of the Secaucus generation.  The same theme of class differentiation is carried through in “Baby, It’s You” (1983), and ultimately even the communality and strength of the up-from-the-working- class women characters in “Lone Star” (1996) derive much from the impact on the whole country of the sixties generation.

Even “Brother From Another Planet” (1984) resonates with the hippie generation’s beguiling disingenuous questioning of why not: What is all this race nonsense about?  The movie challenges the received norms initiated by the civil rights movement at the same time that the silent Black brother (another Sayles regular, Joe Morton) primarily owes his survival-as an escaping slave from another planet-to the unstated, unorganized network of solidarity of the local Harlem working class.

As Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner note in their study of the relationship between cinema and the American political situation, John Sayles has become one of the few independent filmmakers to make a place for himself among mainstream audiences.  This occurs in part because of Sayles’ perceptive sensitivity to how the working class, although seemingly marginalized, is still central to the American dynamic.  The secret is not just that Sayles has a good sense of plot, character and dialogue-developed during his years as a B-movie scriptwriter-but that he presents some of the primary problems of contemporary working class and popular concerns without bludgeoning with didacticism.

An important aspect of Sayles’ work is a marked sensitivity to reviving a sense of American historicism-especially of the vitality of American working-class history in a way that is dramatic, involving and non-preacherly.

As George Lipsitz notes in his discussion of how modern popular culture obliterates all but dominant culture interpretations of the past in the United States:

The crisis in historical thinking is certainly real. The dislocations of the past two centuries, the propaganda apparatuses of totalitarian powers, disillusionment with the paradigms of the Enlightenment, and popular culture itself have all served to make the search for a precious and communicable past one of the most pressing problems of our time. (36)

To tighten the focus on Sayles’ concern with working class un”disappearance,” it seems most efficient to fix our scope on three of his most recent films, “Matewan” (1987), “Eight Men Out” (1988) and his latest, “Lone Star” (1996).  These three films have marked Sayles as one of the most significant players in the circuit of those commenting in a meaningful way on American working-class history.

This is a history that, as Lipsitz elucidates, has been deliberately excised from the mainstream of American popular culture.  Television sitcoms seem to be increasingly focused on domestic trivia; and the old-style buffoonery of working- class life of Jackie Gleason and “The Life of Riley” that brought viewers to the popular media of the fifties has been replaced with insipid sagas of middle-class consumerist life. (Even Archie Bunker, negative stereotype that he was, moved upscale and bought his own bar.)

Gone, too, are the ethnic ties to an American past that had inherited values other than those of internalized anxiety and consumerist reward.

As George Hickenlooper notes in a question addressed to Sayles in an interview published in 1991, both “Eight Men Out” and “Matewan” were set within a year of each other, in the 1919-1920 period.  This period, right after the United States had established its international presence in World War I and the Palmer Raids had all but obliterated the indigenous socialist movement of the pre-war period, may well have marked the point at which capital felt itself at the height of its power, and felt free to rule more openly than it would subsequently.

This was also a time when labor shifted decisively as it had been doing since the onset of industrialization from an act of self-actualization to a depersonalized commodity.  Both films seem to pose the question, what is the measure of a man under such circumstances?

“Eight Men Out”, based on in-depth research, retells the story of the Chicago Black Sox scandal, which involved several team members in a deliberate throwing of the 1919 World Series for the benefit of gangsters from Boston and New York. The point of centering on the baseball scandal seems to be that here, where man is alone with nature and his team members, is supposed to be hallowed ground, removed from the ravages of the class struggle.  As academic baseball buff Douglas Noverr puts it:

The power of baseball films, then, is concentrated in their ability to dramatize and incorporate emotional truths, their capacity for revising baseball history or our sense of it, their visual power of capturing the meanings of the sport as ritual and secular religion, and their potential for focusing on national themes and a creed of faith as these are centered on baseball.  (176)

Thus, when the sport is compromised, as in the Black Sox scandal, the corruption goes right to what Noverr terms, the “heart of the order.”

Corruption films are, of course, not new in American filmmaking.  As Ryan and Kellner point out, however, the usual structure of such films, as in Coppola’s “Godfather” series, is that corruption, violence and male domination are part of the natural order of survival, and cannot be traced to or eliminated by social orderings.

What makes Sayles’ corruption film different is that he explores in minute detail the battle that goes on within each player as he struggles with the effort to dehumanize and commodify himself for the sake of the deal.

What starts things off is primarily a worker-boss situation.  The players have demanded more money; the owner, Comiskey, won’t deliver.  As Sayles notes in his interview with Hickenlooper: “Even though they had a reasonably good deal compared to a coal miner of the period, they could still look around and see that Comiskey wasn’t paying them what they were worth, even on the baseball market.”  (304-305)

Thus, when the gangsters move in and offer big money to some of the best players to get them to throw the game, they find a ripe market.  Most riveting are the scenes that depict the players struggling with their own sense of commitment to sportsmanship, their own humanity as it were, their own struggle to resist commodification.  The key figure is Buck Weaver, who knows about the scam but refuses to participate.  He wants to win; he knows the team could win.

At one moment, as the team breaks through its ties to the mob and plays to win, the spirit of the game, the spirit of the human ethos the game embodies electrifies the screen and the crowds in the bleachers.  The mob is not amused.  Sitting in what looks like a corporate board room complete with ticker tape score results, the Big Guy sends out his torpedoes.

The scandal is ultimately exposed by two newspapermen, played by Studs Terkel and Sayles himself as Ring Lardner, but with a conspiracy that entwines the legitimate boss Comiskey with the mob bosses, the Black Sox are exonerated in order to save face. The guys who take the fall, of course, are the players who are banned thereafter from major league baseball.

The final scene, in which a banned player, years later, is sitting in a stand in New Jersey, watching one of his ousted teammates as he plays at top form in an amateur game, sets the tone for what has been lost-the sense of manly integrity that had been supposed to mark the American spirit the game represented.  The players have been returned to the working class as ordinary workers who are not supposed to have souls or wit, just commercial value as commodities.

“Matewan”, set a year later in 1920 in a West Virginia coal town, is notable among films of its type for its mainstream appeal.  This may be one of the last times in American history when capital could be seen to rule by naked, obvious armed force and workers were seen as active participants in their own destiny, not as dupes of agitators.

There is a union leader (Chris Cooper) and he must confront the sinister forces of the company as it attempts to destroy the miners’ strike.  The most important element of the film, however, is the power of the unity of the strikers as they struggle to cross racial, ethnic and even gender barriers to stand together against an overwhelming force.

James Earl Jones as the leader of a trainload of Black scabs brought in to break the strike, who then leads his men to the side of the strikers is, by his physical presence, a powerful symbol of the force of solidarity and of the strength of an informed brotherhood that is not presented with cloying facileness.

One of the things Sayles is consistently good at is portraying women as strong, supportive, independent, and vital to the struggle.  This may not be so true of the baseball film, but in “Matewan” the strength of the boarding house keeper (Mary McDonnell) who houses both the union organizer and, under duress, the company agents, suggests a feminine vitality that works to reinforce male struggles.

This very fact, as obvious and unremarkable as it may seem, becomes quietly subversive in its own right in the context of the Reagan- era popular thematics of the destructive and castrating power of “liberated” females in the repeated reiterations of the need for patriarchal dominance that Ryan and Kellner examine in contemporary popular film.

If misogynism is a recurrent theme in the American ethos, even in the supposedly liberating radical literature of the thirties, Sayles quietly makes his signature by writing in parts that support a view of gender cooperation as well as racial solidarity.  The war in “Matewan” is strictly along class lines, with just enough ethnic dissension and suspicion of outside leadership to make us understand how strongly the need for solidarity will pull on these workers.

Even when that unionizing effort fails in a combined company- government assault, the fact that these warring factors are able to establish a sense of mutuality seems to suggest a hope for the healing of ongoing divisions within the working class that current street-violence exploitation films show as impossible.  That “Matewan” received a notable press and audience suggests that there may yet lurk a desire out there for more positive realities than are generally related-even about how the struggles of the past were vanquished by visible, tangible forces, so that we don’t have to internalize our own sense of hopelessness in the private angst of more modern-day cultures of futility.

Sayles’ own view of the interrelationship of the personal and the political are, to be sure, in no way formulaic.  As he told interviewer Gavin Smith:

Everybody starts with some kind of handicap or advantage, and that’s their personal history.  And [there’s] also social, group history.  I was interested [in Lone Star] in the way those two things interact.  But also, is there escape from that?  (58)

Sayles’ latest film “Lone Star,” set in a Texas border town, not only re-examines a staple of American film mythos, the western, but seems to bring together most of the themes Sayles has himself explored in his previous oeuvre.  As a commentary on a standard American genre, the film’s most salient feature seems to be the shift it portrays from the patriarchal domination of one oppressive figure, the former lawman (Kris Kristofferson), to the attempt of the new lawman, the film’s hero Sam (Chris Cooper), to weave together a working community from the disparate sectors his predecessor had ruled over as a private fiefdom of corruption.

The new sheriff, having inherited his post from his highly respected but privately tyrannical father, embodies the new liberal spirit of post-Reagan-era plurality and, in attempting to bring the disparate segments of the community together as he searches for his father’s murderer, manages to effect a healing of racial, ethnic, class, and even gender divisions into an almost utopian vision of the desires Sayles’ generation always seems to have harbored.

Indeed, Sam’s visit to his strung-out ex-wife seems to be a crucial point at which he (and Sayles) sees that the dropouts of the hippie generation had little constructive to offer to the very real problems of a new American politics.

If there is a problem with this film, it may be that the problems seem too easily solvable.  The forces of capital are reduced to a few entrepreneurs who want to scheme to build an unnecessary new jail so they can make a profit.  We never really see who or what is behind the extreme poverty and oppression of the Mexicans struggling to make it across the border.  (A portrayal of the violence and poverty in Juarez in a recent issue of “Harper’s” lays the responsibility for this situation much more directly at the feet of American factory owners.)

A Mexican-American woman has been able to climb up the proverbial ladder of opportunity to own her own restaurant and become a respected member of the community; her daughter a schoolteacher.  An African-American club owner and neighborhood leader is glad now to be free of the tribute money he had to pay to the former rugged individualist John Wayne-type sheriff, cooperates with our hero, and eventually even wins his uppity son back from his upwardly mobile army position for a family reconciliation.

Sam uncovers the network of corruption, payoff and exploitation that was the basis of the former ruling caste.  The final scene has him meeting with his loved one, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), the Mexican-American schoolteacher.  They had been childhood sweethearts; both his Anglo sheriff father and her mother had forbidden them to meet, and now Sam has discovered that they are in fact half-siblings, she the result of a clandestine relationship between the tyrannical father and the Mexican-American mother.

This incest may seem a bit of a contrivance, but it serves to underscore the gender and ethnic interrelatedness of both the pair and the community.  As they sit on top of his jeep and discuss their prospects (she can’t have children, anyway) they face a huge derelict drive-in-theatre backboard that suggests the outworn values of fifties culture that have dominated and shaped the divisiveness and oppressiveness of their own lives and the lives of the community.

The pair will now surmount those difficulties if they can and, shirking off the asocial irresponsibility that still attracts Sam, will launch themselves into the task of healing the community and salving the wounds the culture has inflicted on all of them.

Of course, if they are counting only on the good will and solidarity that Sam has been able to establish in the community, those of us who have seen Sayles’ previous films and read his most recent novel, “Los Gusanos”, know that the battle will not be so easily won. Maybe Sayles knows this, too.

If “Los Gusanos” meticulously charts how the personal fortunes of a vulnerable community of anti-Castro Cubans are toyed with by the American superpower, and the “Harper’s” study of the violence and oppression in Juarez exposes the forces of capital at work in the Third World, even so close to home, we must know that solving the problem of a working class community that interconnects so many contending forces will not be an easy matter.

The Kristofferson character may be as outmoded as the drive- in-movie screen he seems to have jumped down from, but the liberalism of the new sheriff, which seems to speak for the desires of the Clinton-era post-sixties grown-ups, leaves us with no easy answers.

Desires for solidarity, for gender, class, race unity and for a sympathetic resolution to the crisis of Third World poverty are, of course, to be lauded.  And it is to Sayles’ credit that he gives voice to those desires-and finds an audience for that voice-in a time when major disaster movies are still, as Ryan and Kellner point out, alarming the population with visions of major destruction by un-American forces, and the need to reassert white male patriarchal dominance.

The good news of Sayles’ work is that it holds out the possibilities of community solidarity and the need for a reexamination and reinvigoration of American history and mythos.  The difficulty, as is evident in both “Matewan” and “Lone Star,” is that more still needs to be done to examine the forces that are thwarting hopes for the realization of those possibilities.

Can Juarez and the plight of border towns-even for that matter of the planet-be alleviated by more liberal-minded American law officers?  Not as long as Nicholas Scheele, the head of Ford Motor Company in Mexico, can brag, according to “Harper’s” reporter Charles Bowden, “But is there any other country in the world where the working class .  .  .  took a hit in their purchasing power of in excess of 50 percent over an eight-year period and you didn’t have a revolution?” (50)

Perhaps the power of Sayles’ films-and the secret of their mainstream popularity in spite of their counterculture ideology-is that they celebrate the power of the individual to be an actor in his/her own social situation in a way that does not lend itself to the mythos of American capitalist individualism, but includes community responsibility as a factor in the strengthening of the individual’s force.

As the interviewer Gavin Smith put it, these “films ponder and problematize the relationships of individual/community and personal/social; and there’s always an underlying dynamic between idealists seeking freedom and pragmatic realists who have attained a measure of independence.”  (57)

Even if we know that community and solidarity will be harder to win than Sayles’ newer efforts seem to suggest, the fact that someone is bucking Hollywood forgers of dominant ideology and that audiences are responding may offer hope that even more of American working-class history-and the history of American working-class aspirations can yet be redeemed.

Works Cited

Bowden, Charles.  “While You Were Sleeping: In Juarez, Mexico, photographers expose the violent realities of free trade.  “Harper’s”, December 1996, 44-52.

Hickenlooper, George.  “Reel Conversations: Candid Interviews with Film’s Foremost Directors and Critics.”  New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.

Lipsitz, George.  “Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture.”  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Noverr, Douglas.  “An Essay Film Review of “Eight Men Out”, “Bull Durham”, and “Major League,” in Peter Levine, ed. “Baseball History 2: An Annual of Original Baseball Research.”  Meckler Books.

Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner.  “Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film.”  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Sayles, John. “At the Anarchists’ Convention.”  Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

——.  “Baby, It’s You”, 1983.

——.  “Eight Men Out”, 1988.

——.  “Lianna”, 1983.

——.”  Lone Star”, 1996.

——.  “Los Gusanos”, New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

——.  “Matewan”, 1987.

——.  “The Return of the Secaucus Seven”, 1980.

——.  “Union Dues”, Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.

Smith, Gavin.  “John Sayles: `I Don’t want to blow anything by people'” “Film Comment.”  May-June 1996.  v. 32, n.3.  57- 68.

Nora Ruth Roberts’ most recent book, “Three Radical Women Writers: Class and Gender in Meridel Le Sueur, Tillie Olsen, and Josephine Herbst,” was published in 1995 by Garland Publishers.  She is now working on a new book for Garland on contemporary working-class culture.

ATC 70, September-October 1997

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