John Sayles' sedate, inoffensive Honeydripper takes place in Harmony, Alabama, in 1950, where Jim Crow laws are in full swing and black men can be arrested simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Honeydripper of the title is a run-down, failing club owned by Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), a menacing pianist with a heart of gold. Tyrone is so broke he can't afford to buy enough liquor to get through the weekend, but on Saturday night, his luck is going to turn: For the first night ever, famed electric guitar player Guitar Sam is set to take the stage at the Honeydripper. Things don't quite go as planned—but luckily, Harmony sits on a rail line, and a guitar-playing drifter named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.) is on hand to stage a last-minute rescue.
For the most part, Honeydripper is pretty standard stuff—an against-all-odds story of rock 'n' roll saving the day—and it doesn't help that Sayles shoots and writes the fictional film as if it were a biopic, with all the musical sequences and sepia-tinted edges the genre implies.
The film's saving grace is its restrained depiction of the racist South. When Sonny goes looking for work picking cotton, he's arrested for vagrancy—and ends up serving his sentence by picking cotton, the work of the prisoners indistinguishable from the work done by free black men. Similarly, the racism of Harmony's sheriff is taken as a given, and when he hankers for a fried chicken sandwich, he heads over to the Honeydripper for the best in town. Sayles' integration of racism into the very fabric of the film—accepting it as a reality, something that's low-level and insidious but also incidental, in terms of plot—seems like a realistic depiction of the way the Jim Crow South actually worked, and is handled deftly enough to save Honeydripper from mediocrity.