The movie unfolds in the small town of Harmony, in and around the Honeydripper nightclub, one of two watering holes in the area. The Honeydripper is going under. Its live music - a blues singer accompanied by a piano - is no longer in vogue. The young people like the jukebox and lively atmosphere at the Honeydripper's rival bar. The owner of the Honeydripper, Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover), is in debt and at risk of losing everything. He bets his entire future on one gamble: bringing in popular recording artist Guitar Sam from New Orleans for one night. He hopes he'll make enough money to clear his debts, pay Sam, and get people interested in the Honeydripper again. Meanwhile, Tyrone has to worry about losing his wife, Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton), to a sect of evangelical Christians, and he has to appease the local racist sheriff (Stacy Keach) who keeps a watchful eye on him.
A few days before Tyrone's big event, a young guitar player, Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), arrives in town looking for work. Tyrone doesn't give him a job but he offers him a meal. Soon thereafter, the sheriff arrests Sonny for vagrancy and puts him to work in the cotton fields, working off his sentence. But Sonny and Tyrone are not done with each other. Their paths will cross again in a meaningful fashion, much to the delight of Tyrone's teenage step-daughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta).
The plot is a basic melodrama, but there are a lot of hooks hanging from it. The first is the understated exploration of race and racism in this situation. The story is told from the point-of-view of the black lead characters and we see their circumstances contrasted with those of the whites. The sheriff is the token racist authority figure but, while he's not sympathetic, Sayles takes care not to paint him as a villain with a black hat. He abuses his power but he doesn't go as some might (and historically did). Sayles' portrait of Harmony does something few movies attempt by showing not the graphic, violent side of racism but the insidious, corrosive kind.
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