John Sayles: The Griot of Late Capitalism

Sayles’s collected works could fill a semester of Socialist Night School.

When I said that I was going to interview John Sayles, my friends shouted out their favorite movie titles. Sayles is a movie maker of whom the Washington Post once snarked, “If John Sayles were a ballplayer, they’d call him Lefty—not for his pitching arm but for his politics.” His 18 films so far can obscure Sayles’s literary output, fiction whose propulsive prose tackles similar questions. All of his work explores life under capitalism, with its embedded racism, misogyny, and classism.

Sayles asks, “How did we get here?” and “How are we coping?” Born in Schenectady, New York, in 1950, he remembers “being fed this idea of ‘democratic America.’” Sayles soon began to gauge the limits of that ideal. In 1956, on a family trip to Florida, six-year-old Sayles was delighted to see a COLORED sign above a Washington, D.C., water fountain, thinking it offered colored water: maybe red, white, and blue, for the nation’s capital. “It’s broken!” he remembers telling his parents. “That water’s still clear!” His father  said softly, “No, John, down here these people have a real problem.” Sayles would learn that the problem wasn’t just geographical.

Sayles’s parents were both educators. “My Dad voted Republican because of Eisenhower, but that’s because he was in Eisenhower’s Army.” The household wasn’t wealthy, and Sayles worked minimum-wage jobs both before and after going to Williams College. He chose jobs—as a hospital orderly, as a meatpacker (“my first union job!”)— with lots of down time for writing, learning, listening.

The voices he heard populated his stories, from the prize-winning truckers’ tale “I-80” to the near-classic At the Anarchists’ Convention (a must-read for anyone who has been at a left-wing gathering). And when his first novel was optioned by Hollywood, Sayles learned that writing for movies was a good-paying job. Scripts for genre movies like Roger Corman’s Piranha earned him cash for his own, starting in 1980.

The New Republic sent Sayles to Detroit in the summer of 1980 to cover the Republican National Convention that nominated Ronald Reagan. “The convention on TV, it was all this, ‘Morning in America,’’’ Sayles said. “But on the floor it was a Goldwater convention. I remember talking to two young women wearing ‘Stop ERA’ pins. I asked them why, and they said, ‘They’ll force us to have abortions.’ I asked, ‘Have you actually read the amendment?’ and they said ‘NO! That’s how they get you.’ And I realized, there’s a lot of willful ignorance, a lot of fear of the Other in these people.”

Sayles’s  films and novels comprise a syllabus for a class in Life Under Late Capitalism—including the assault on and decline of the U.S. labor movement.  Like most fiction writers, Sayles looks for the site of conflict—“when two entities want the same thing,” especially when “they don’t share a language for that situation.” Such scenarios make complex characters, he added. “I like dramatizing good people making bad decisions.”

As he tackles a subject, Sayles’s main question is, “If people are acting like this, what can possibly be going through their heads?”  Sometimes one story idea breeds another. His latest novel, Yellow Earth, began when he was contemplating a movie about the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Talking to Native families in Carlisle, near the Marcellus Shale, which is subject to fracking, made Sayles think about oil resources on Native land—and about the current oil frenzy sparked by the Bakken Formation, 200,000 acres of shale underlying parts of Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. “While the Bakken was rockin’, network news covered it very well,” Sayles said with a laugh. “Then I had to go there and see what it looked like when you fracture land that way. I had to meet some of these people,” some of whom became the characters that populate Yellow Earth’s story.

The preponderance of nonwhite Native characters made me ask Sayles about the recent controversy sparked by the novel American Dirt. Jeanine Cummins’s bestselling narrative of undocumented immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border rang false to critics already suspicious about a white author far outside the community. “What are your thoughts on writing outside your community?” I asked.

Sayles, who has made films in Spanish and films with all-black casts, and whose novels are often similarly populated, replied that he didn’t know much about that particular controversy. “Any writer, unless it’s a diary or memoir, you’re writing someone else—someone older than you are, younger than you are, a different color.” Or someone living in a different time; his next novel will be set in 1758 in what was then the colony of Pennsylvania. “I’ve never met any of those people. Basically, it comes down to what you can pull off, how you present it, and what you claim for your book.”

People are free, Sayles added, to say, I don’t believe these people. “But there are always surprises.”

When I asked how to most honestly create characters from other communities, Sayles said simply, “People aren’t exotic to me, no matter where they’re from. Make sure your characters aren’t, either.” Also, make sure you know what you’re talking about: Do your homework. Read stuff by people who were in their situation. Talk to your friends in that community.

“Also,” Sayles said gently, “try to avoid having only one” such character. “If there’s only one it turns into Sidney Poitier. Even Poitier resisted that. If you have multiple characters and kind of a range of behaviors, it comes down to people as people.”

Asked why he still makes working-class stories, Sayles quoted his friend Studs Terkel: “What else do you do all day?” He remains fascinated by the details of work, any kind of work. One Yellow Earth character works as a pole dancer, “which is a job! And a hard one.” Workplaces are also great listening places.

Sayles finds the current wave of union organizing encouraging, including the almost-unions at Walmart, but he doesn’t yet see it making a dent in the right wing’s long, successful anti-union campaign. And as anti-corporate as his ethos is, Sayles isn’t that impressed with DSA yet. “I think Bernie will sink, because of the socialist label,” he said. “People don’t understand that the U.S. economy is already mixed, some capitalist, some not, with portions of it quite socialist.”

He’s encouraged by DSA’s visibility,  “but I don’t think it’s a movement,” he said. “It’s a desire, but I don’t see it where the rubber meets the road. What I see is a lot of words, a lot of opinions.”

One final question. Will we survive late capitalism?

“I just don’t see people being able to put the brakes on in time. There will still be people. But will there be—even the democracy that we’ve had in my lifetime?”

Sayles quotes the main character of his 1996 film Men with Guns, a prominent physician in Central America who finally realizes that his own medical students are being killed by the regime for treating poor Indians: “How can I know this? How can I accept that as the truth and live the life that I want to live?”

Forty years of Sayles

Some highlights of Sayles’ work, which together might comprise a kick-ass semester of Socialist Night School:

  • Union Dues (1977) At the Anarchists ‘Convention (1979): Two books with wry takes on the end of what’s usually called “The Sixties.”
  • The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), Sayles’ first movie; a far more soulful version of Hollywood’s later The Big Chill.
  • The Brother from Another Planet (1984). Joe Morton plays a Black alien who lands in Harlem, offering a glimpse of 1980s New York in all its multiracial classist mess. (Keep an eye out for a scene on the A train you’ll be laughing at for years.)
  • Matewan (1987). Recently re-released as a Criterion Collection DVD, this visually astounding story has engraved the 1920s coal miners’ strike in the national memory.
  • Eight Men Out (1988). Like no other baseball movie, you’ve seen, this one takes a labor of baseball seriously, filming mid-field and featuring dancer Bill Irwin and college-baseball star Charlie Sheen among his 1919 Black Sox.
  • City of Hope. (1991). Ever been frustrated by municipal backbiting amid poverty? Sayles’ elegy of a movie stays in your soul.
  • Los Gusanos (1991). One extended family’s story narrates Cuban-American relations before, during and after the Cuban Revolution.
  • Lone Star (1996) is the first of Sayles’ state songs, which would come to include Sunshine State (2002) and Silver City (2004)most starring featured players Chris Cooper and Mary Steenburgen.
  • Men with Guns (1997). Sayles’ first Spanish-language film is based on a story from Guatemala, but its emotions and themes are pretty universal.
  • Casa De Los Babys (2003). Daryl Hannah in a Sayles movie? She and Maggie Gyllenhaal are among the A-list actresses playing Americans at the title orphanage, whose owner is played by Rita Moreno. “They all said, I’ve never been in so many scenes with other women,” Sayles told me.
  • Honeydripper (2007). This jazz-fusion tale set in the fictional town of Harmony, Alabama, is “rich with characters and flowing with music” (Roger Ebert.)
  • Amigo (2010). Amigo recounts the Philippine War from the perspective of the Filipinos, except for an ambivalent occupier played by Garret Hedlund. Be prepared for the waterboarding scene.
  • A Moment In the Sun (2011). More than a novel, this is a 1000-page prose poem merging that Philippines War. the violent Klan smashing of Reconstruction, and the experiences of Black soldiers in both. By doing so it turns a funhouse mirror to our age.
  • Yellow Earth (2020).