In John Sayles's new film "Amigo," a look at the U.S. occupation of a Philippine hamlet during the Spanish-American War in the 1900s, the director once again shows his amazing knack for humanist, politically engaged storytelling that transcends liberal pigeonholing. I'd love to see how Sayles would handle the Iraq war head-on. Though "Amigo" is obviously a thinly veiled comment on America's more recent overseas incursions, the film never loses sight of its historical specificity.
And like all of Sayles' cinema, nearly every character here -- even the most nefarious or tangential -- will end up far more multifaceted and complex than what he or she first appears. "Amigo," for example, gives due to several strata of ethnicities and classes within his microcosmic world of American imperialism.
Even the invading U.S. soldiers, initially appearing to be white, ignorant ugly Americans, eventually reveal levels of nuance and vulnerability. (One Southern soldier admits he's nothing but a share-cropper, barely different from the slaves his family toils beside back home.)
And though they have little to do with the main narrative, a few Chinese men -- who are essentially slaves for the U.S. Army -- receive a subjectivity in Sayles' writing that is rare for minor characters.
But that is what Sayles does best: showing the interlocking mechanisms and various interrelated ensemble of human beings that are part of the societies he depicts, whether those in the labor struggles of the 1920s ("Matewan"), a Texas border town ("Lone Star") or the gentrification of the Florida coast ("Sunshine State").
And unlike Hollywood, you'd never catch Sayles pinning a narrative to the white hero's point of view: Like "Men With Guns" or "The Brother from Another Planet," "Amigo" foregrounds the perspective of the oppressed people, not the white dominant position.
And this, of course, is something that makes his movies entirely difficult to make.
When I interviewed Sayles a few years ago for indieWIRE (The Return of John Sayles; From “Secaucus” to the “Sunshine State”), he spoke to me about trying to get "Amigo" made.
"We've got an epic that I wrote about the Philippine insurrection after the Spanish American War, but most of the characters are black people and it will cost more than 10 million dollars," he said. "When we were looking for money, the one thing that they're not interested in is black people. I generally write them first and then we figure out how to finance it."
Sayles is that rare American filmmaker, more true to himself and his political interests than just about anyone else still working today.
"Our movies are political in that they deal with how people affect each other, and how governments affect people and how people affect governments, but they are not ideological," he said. "I would say they just recognize that there are politics involved in a lot of things. There are politics involved in sports, it may be racial, sexual or economic, but they are there and they are affected by history and they are changing constantly."