An eye for character: Filmmaker John Sayles tackles American imperialism

By Mike Wold, Contributing Writer

The end of the 19th century was a busy time in American history: We fought a war with the Spanish and another to suppress the independence movement in the Philippines; Jim Crow scored a critical victory in the South; the Alaska Gold Rush got into full swing; and a president was assassinated.

John Sayles, a filmmaker as well as a fiction writer, ties these events together in “A Moment in the Sun,” using close to a dozen major characters — black, white, Native American, Filipino, and Chinese — whose lives intersect. One thread follows a trio of African-American soldiers from Wilmington, N.C., who help liberate Cuba. They are then sent to defeat freedom fighters in the Philippines, even as the mixed-race city council in their hometown is overthrown by a white racist insurrection.

Sayles delineates his characters well; even though the narrative moves back and forth among their stories, it’s never confusing. And he is a master of back story. A major theme running through the novel is the unimaginable complexity of people’s lives in this first period of globalization, epitomized by his saga of a North China peasant who marries a white American farm boy and ends up running a hamburger stand in the Philippines.

Another recurrent theme is that “the fix is in.” In the early scenes, a white miner in Alaska is conned out of his grubstake and then winds up in a prize fight, substituting for a man who just froze to death. He soon learns that he’s not expected to knock his opponent out, but survive just enough rounds so that his promoters can collect on their bets. As the Americans invade the Philippines, the islands’ Spanish defenders make a deal to put up just enough resistance so they won’t get into trouble at home; in return, the Americans will protect them from being massacred by the Filipinos. As a crucial election comes up in Wilmington, nobody blinks an eye when the votes for the white Democratic candidate exceed the number of registered voters. Even the upright African-American doctor marries his daughter off to a man she’s never been intimate with, rather than shame his family with the “low-class” soldier who has fathered her child. And the nascent movie industry is doing all it can to make the brutal suppression of freedom abroad seem like a mission of liberation.

There are periods of history when all people can do is survive; this sounds like one of them. The characters are less the creators of historical events than subject to them, victims of a machine of domination and empire that proceeds under its own momentum. Sayles acknowledges the many ways that people resist, but he’s chosen a period when resistance movements were mostly on the losing end — the Populists defeated, Jim Crow having its final victories and the Filipino independistas surrendering. He finds human dignity in the ways that people care for and find love for each other in the most extreme circumstances and in the lives they make for themselves in spite of their losses.

The novel ends with a real historical event, the electrocution of an elephant on Coney Island. You can never ignore an elephant. The same is true about the ramped-up colonialism and racism that ushered in the 20th century in America. No matter how much the media tried to make it look like something else, eventually people were going to notice.

Mike Wold: What was the starting point for “A Moment in the Sun”?

John Sayles: I stumbled across this story doing research on my last novel about the Spanish-American War. I kept running into “the Philippine insurrection” and I thought: “How come I’m 37 years old and never heard of this?” Doing some research about the same period I came across this racial coup in Wilmington, N.C. The two events are connected by race, but also by the way the United States was thinking about itself.

So I figured, what if I had some African-American characters from Wilmington who have gone off to fight for the flag while their rights are being taken away? Other major characters are a working class white guy and a guy up from the South involved in the beginning of the movie industry because it’s not just what happened, it’s how the media treated what happened. What the media said is what people thought the war was.

Our movie “Amigo,” coming out in August, is also set during the Philippine-American War and the parallels are unavoidable: The situation that occurs again and again when one country occupies another and doesn’t really understand the culture that they’ve invaded.

M.W.: One of your Filipino characters talks about American soldiers as cruel but also innocent like children. Can you talk about that a little?

J.S.: Americans want everybody to like them — American soldiers want to get down and smoke dope and shack up with women and feed kids candy bars and be liked. There’s this sense of hurt when local people are angry at them for bombing their huts or killing their livestock. Whereas the Spanish knew they were there to colonize, American soldiers didn’t. They thought, “We’ll just straighten them out and then leave,” but that wasn’t the plan.

M.W.: So the government had a hidden agenda?

J.S.: The only reason we didn’t take over Cuba was that Sen. (Henry Moore) Teller said, “Well, this isn’t because you people want to take over Cuba and make it a territory or a state, is it?” and they said, “Oh, no, no, no, this is really out of the goodness of our hearts,” and he said, “Well, put it on paper.” But nobody knew where the Philippines was and the expansionists in the McKinley cabinet just decided this was too good to pass up.

M.W.: What about Wilmington, N.C.?

J.S.: Once black men got the right to vote, they voted in huge numbers. Then the Union troops marched out — one of those Bush-Gore elections where one guy got the popular vote and the other got the electoral vote and the compromise was, if you Yankees leave, we’ll let the Republican be the president. The minute that happened, Jim Crow laws started being put in. North Carolina was the last of the Southern states where that happened.

In Wilmington, blacks had the majority. Blacks had a couple of wards, they had city councilmen, they had firemen, they even had policemen who had the right to arrest white men. This was a shocker for the old-guard white community. Blacks had political allies in the poor whites: It was called the Populist Party.

The old Confederates decided to break this alliance. The newspapers started printing stories — mostly manufactured — about black men raping white women. They made it very clear to anybody that if they sold guns to a black man their store would be burned down.

They bought a Gatling gun, demonstrated it to the black leaders and told them, “Go tell your people not to vote.” Black people pretty much didn’t vote in that mid-year election. The next day they came around with the Gatling gun, killed a lot of black people, rounded up everybody they didn’t like, black and white, put them on a train and said, “Don’t get off until you’re in Philadelphia, because there’s a lynch mob waiting for you at every train stop from here to there.” President McKinley needed the votes, so he didn’t really look into it and that was it for North Carolina — black people couldn’t vote there either.

M.W.: The book ends with the electrocution of an elephant. How did you choose that?

J.S.: There was a phrase in the Civil War: “Have you gone to see the elephant?” That meant, “Have you been up to the front lines?” Later on, in Coney Island there was a hotel in the shape of an elephant that at first was a tourist attraction, and then became a house of ill repute. So to go to see the elephant at first meant, “Have you gone to see Coney Island?” Then eventually it meant, “Have you been to the whorehouse today?” It’s about loss of innocence.

People like to not know things and so they try to ignore things. The scene in the book was something that was filmed by Edison. You can go online and see the elephant getting whacked. Edison was trying to prove that alternating current was more dangerous than the direct current that he had invented — to show it’s so dangerous you can electrocute an elephant with it. To me this symbolizes that you can ignore things for a while, but eventually, it’s the size of an elephant and you can’t ignore it anymore.

M.W.: So what’s your next project?

J.S.: A movie about the Rosenberg case. Their sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, have wanted a feature movie about that case for a long time. They’ve dealt with some new information very well, not what they’ve wanted to hear, mostly that their father was a spy, but he didn’t have the secret to the atomic bomb. That was just our symbolic show trial: While Stalin was killing thousands of people in show trials, we electrocuted a Jewish couple from the Lower East Side.

Which of your movies was your favorite?

Every once in a while I watch a movie over, but it’s more like watching a home movie, because it triggers memories of making it. Shooting on location gives you access to a community. I’ve been thinking of “Matewan” the last couple weeks, because Hazel Dickens, the great hill singer, died. We had her sing a couple of songs and appear in “Matewan.” We formed an alliance with the people where we were shooting in West Virginia and they’d never had their story told before. They became the actors in small parts, and to this day you can buy copies of “Matewan” in hardware stores in West Virginia.

M.W.: Anything else you’d like to say?

J.S.: Check the book out if you like to read great, big historical novels. “Amigo” will be opening in the States in August, starting with communities that have a lot of Filipino-Americans and moving on to the regular art theaters. It’ll play in the Pacific Northwest.

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