In the eye of the beholder

In the February 19, 1986 issue of The New York Times, Janet Maslin said in her review, “Most of ”Parting Glances” functions as a parade of homosexual stereotypes.” On the same day, several other mainstream reviews said basically the same thing. Meanwhile, every gay publication hailed the film as the first realistic portrayal of gay culture they had ever seen in a film. Due to the bad mainstream reviews, the film died a quick death at the box office (anyone remember the Embassy 72nd Street theater?). A generation later, the film is commonly thought of as a classic, a landmark film in the “New Queer Cinema.” When the film was restored and shown at Outfest earlier this year, the festival referred to it as “among the most beloved LGBT films of the last 25 years.”

This memory popped into my head this morning as I read Stephen Holden’s review of “Honeydripper” in The New York Times. I have nothing against Holden (as I didn’t against Maslin way back when). In fact, his taste in movies generally coincides with mine more often than not. But like “Parting Glances,” is this a case of the mainstream media missing the point? Why is it that every African American audience we show the film to is thanking us for its realistic portrayal? Is it that the Jim Crow era is just so loaded with baggage that it is not acceptable to portray a small story within that era without showing the lynchings? Is it that a white writer/director is tackling this subject?

I ask these questions merely to provoke some discussion. The real question is, do people show their own ignorance–and even racism–when they have a kneejerk reaction to a story that, while set in a certain time and place, is trying to get to something a little different from what is expected? Is the viewer the one guilty of stereotyping? I’d like to challenge Stephen Holden to see the film again. Perhaps the power of the individual characters in the film will be clearer once he is more familiar with the film’s own rhythms. And I’d like to challenge audiences in New York and Los Angeles to go check it out this weekend and come back here and tell me your thoughts.

One final thought…

The great Charles Burnett wrote a piece on our blog after seeing the film. You can see the entire thing HERE, but I quote one small section below…

In spite of where and when the story takes place, the story takes one on pleasant journey that shows us that people have to do what they have to in order to survive.

Another thing that I really appreciated about “Honeydripper” is that it is a story about people who are in a situation where people with power can determine if one lives or dies. The cause of the tension is the perpetual injustice from the legacy of slavery. There are a lot of issues that are not focused on, but are clearly visible in the atmosphere. Race is an ongoing issue that good people are not afraid to tackle. John Sayles’ films are out front on that issue.

If Charles Burnett had made this film, would he be accused of stereotyping?

As if to make my case, we just found out the film was nominated for 2 NAACP Image Awards…for Best Independent Feature and for Best Screenplay. Stereotypes??!!!

11 thoughts on “In the eye of the beholder”

  1. Stephen Holden got it then didn’t get it in his review of Sayles’s new movie. It’s in today’s NYT. He had a hard time distinguishing the characters that JS had writ large, mythologically or symbollically, with the “real” characters conducting life on that patch of land in Jim Crow south. Maybe it’s not entirely a “positive” review in a movie biz sense, but it really made me want to see it, based on what it is, and how he addressed the attempted synthesis of race, music, history and mythology in what are always (with him) beautiful images. And if it’s Sayles, it will tell a story, which is why we go, no?

  2. I’m a little shocked that Holden didn’t mention how closely “Honeydripper” resembles the plays of August Wilson…it seemed pretty obvious to me after just one viewing.
    It’s not one of my favorite Sayles films, but I liked it a lot nonetheless.

  3. I’m addressing this to Lewis Black,of the Austin Chronicle… Do you buy into this idea that critics, or at least Stephen Holden, would’ve shown Honeydripper more respect if it had been directed by Charles Burnett?


  4. Absolutely. Or a woman. or any other Black director. Or a new indie director. Or if it had a sociopath killer murdering little black girls. Everyone is entitled to and has their own opinion but his review was so lame I couldn’t believe it.


  5. There has never been, and presumably never will be, a shortage of bad or simply misguided reviews of great art.
    They are meaningless.
    Van Gogh, Monet, Dylan, Clint Eastwood, Scorsese, etc, etc. all were reviewed by individuals in positions of varying degrees of influence, who were plain wrong.
    Doesn’t matter.
    Never has, never will.
    Solid artwork always finds its audience.
    I have faith in the process….it’s often slow yet always effective.

  6. p.s.
    I’m reminded of the casting person who infamously wrote in his notes after auditioning Fred Astaire:
    “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little”.
    Who has contributed more to our society….Stephen Holden or John Sayles?

  7. Dear Ira,

    I have just finished watching Kiss Me Guido with friends of mine in thier living room. Image my surprise when I saw the credits. It captured that New York culture and brought me back. Who wouda’ thought we’d be where we are today after being forced to listen to our high school English teacher recite Macbeth? Great to see your name “up in lights” in the credits.


  8. Dear Ira,

    Thank you for your review! It’s a refreshing commentary as I’m almost finished with my revised, “The Poison Shooters” script I promised to show you about 3 years ago! My characters are of several ethnicities and nationalities which can be challenging when integrating their cultural nuances with that of others. I haven’t stopped writing since I started, 1/1/10!

    John Sayles is one of my favorite filmmakers and his cultural development of real people amazes me with each of his movies.


    Noel E. Jefferson
    Facebook and Linkedin

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