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Toward a Politics of Reconciliation: John Sayles’s “Lone Star,” after 25 Years

“Sayles’s 1996 film, Lone Star, is arguably his greatest work to date. And after 25 years, given the tensions that continue to circle around issues of race and immigration, it certainly has not lost any of its original force and relevance.”

John Sayles is perhaps America’s foremost independent filmmaker. Since directing The Return of the Secaucus 7 over four decades ago, he has been crafting films that explore the complex psychologies of his characters as shaped by very specific cultural and geographical settings—from Florida to Alaska, from West Virginia to Texas. By drawing our attention to the typically unexamined relationships between people and place, Sayles has given us thoughtful perspectives on a wide variety of distinctly American “types,” slyly revealing not only what matters—both personally and politically—to a very diverse suite of individuals but also why the American project of forming a more perfect union is constantly under stress.

Sayles’s 1996 film, Lone Star, is arguably his greatest work to date. And after 25 years, given the tensions that continue to circle around issues of race and immigration, it certainly has not lost any of its original force and relevance. The film is ostensibly a “Whodunit” mystery revolving around the murder of a corrupt sheriff, but Sayles’s thematic preoccupations are best revealed by situating Lone Star within the tradition of the classical American Westerns, for they too—at their best—pose deep questions about the very possibility of political association and order, the nature of authority, and about who did or did not fall within the real or imagined borders of the American national family. Indeed, as John Ford did back in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Sayles similarly asks troubling questions about how people of different races, languages, economic interests, and histories can “get along” and live together in a viable and respectful political community, without having to resort to seemingly efficacious myth-making or historical denial—or to the use of the very extralegal violence, which civil society is officially charged to contain. This is not to say that Lone Star actually is a Western (except, perhaps, in a revisionist or heterodox sense), but by setting his film in Frontera, a Texas border community along the Rio Grande, and by invoking many of the old conflicts and the stock character types (the corrupt sheriff, the good teacher, the indifferent politician/mayor, the saloon keeper, etc.) that dominate the Western genre, Sayles is inviting his viewer to ask those same deep and worrying questions about the possibility of political community. He also asks viewers to think about how America has (or has not) become a more tolerant, inclusive society since the West was settled or “founded.”    

Of course, Sayles is not suggesting that the great, great grandchildren of those early white settlers, Civil War veterans, Mexicans, freed African-American slaves, and various Indian nations are simply reproducing the ancient disputes of their ancestors. Instead, he is furnishing a thoughtful portrait of where the great American experiment currently stands, warts and all. Despite the lingering racism and inter-group suspicions, however, the film is actually cautiously optimistic about the possibility that even the most hard-hearted people, so caught up in the pursuit of their own narrow interests (or the interests of their tightly circumscribed communities), can expand the circle of moral concern by confronting their own (and never quite buried) personal experiences.

Before getting into the political-theoretical issues raised by the film, a thumbnail sketch of its basic plot and central characters is warranted. Lone Star begins with the discovery of a skeleton out in the Texas scrublands, on the site of an abandoned military rifle range. A Masonic ring and a sheriff’s badge are also unearthed. The current sheriff, Sam Deeds (played by Chris Cooper) concedes that it would be premature to call the area a crime scene. However, he acknowledges, with wry understatement, that the country has seen its share of disagreements over the years.

Although we might expect from this opening scene a quick cut to the police station or a crime lab, Sayles temporarily puts the brakes on the mystery and instead furnishes a series of glimpses into the different racial communities that populate the town. In each case, Sayles attempts to tease out both the passions and pathologies of these different groups by showing us the specific struggles of different generations within a single family. Mercedes Cruz, for example, is an older Latina woman, the proud owner of a Mexican restaurant, and a prominent member of the town council. She distrusts the young Mexicans who work for her and implores them to “speak English.” Her daughter, Pilar, a widowed school teacher, is under pressure from a group of white parents to teach history exclusively from their one-sided perspective. (While no one is screaming about Critical Race Theory, the scene remarkably pre-figures the sort of clashes over race and history that we have observed in school board meetings this year.) It is worth pausing and asking whether what Pilar is trying to do in her class—teaching history from different perspectives—coincides with Sayle’s political vision in the film itself. Pilar’s son, Amado, is beginning to run with a tougher crowd of disaffected youth and appears anxious about his authentic, Latino identity. Early in the film, he is picked up by the police for minor theft. This incident brings together Sam and Pilar, once young “interracial” lovers who have been out of touch since high school.

Meanwhile, there is a shooting at “Big O’s,” an African-American bar popular with young soldiers from the nearby military base. The bar is run by Otis Payne, an amiable yet shrewd businessman and amateur historian who has discovered that his family’s blood is mixed with the blood of Florida’s Seminole Indians. More than that, Otis compares the role his bar plays in the lives of the small African-American community to that of the one black church in town. Otis, thus, functions as the secular pastor for his people. Despite winking and turning a blind eye to the drug use on his premises, he importantly provides guidance and hospitality to his customers—and sometimes even a place to sleep when there is nowhere else to go. Otis is known, affectionately, as the “Mayor of Dark Town.” 

His son, Colonel Delmore Payne, is the newly-appointed commanding officer at Fort McKenzie, a base scheduled to close due to post-Cold War military cuts. Delmore is a very different sort of person than his father: serious, disciplined, a true “spit and polish” soldier, a man able to “crack walnuts with his asshole,” as one subordinate officer quips behind his back. He is a black man who has had to outperform white people all his life to get where he is. Interestingly, the bartender and soldier have not seen each other in forty years, since Delmore was eight. The estranged father has tried to keep up with his son’s military career; the son, however, has little respect or affection for what his father does and still resents the fact that, as a young man, Otis spent more time chasing other women and running numbers than he spent with his actual family. The relationship is further complicated by Chet, Delmore’s son. Lacking the self-assurance of both his father and grandfather, Chet does not want to follow in the Colonel’s footsteps (to West Point and a military career) and is resentful of his father’s unilaterally formulated plans for his life. Chet seems more interested in cartooning than the military, and he starts secretly visiting Otis without his father’s consent. 

As we might expect, the town’s cigar-chomping mayor is a white man, Hollis Pogue. We first meet him as he reminisces with friends about Buddy Deeds, played by a then-relatively-unknown Matthew McConaughey. Aptly named as the friend who “gets things done,” Buddy was Sam’s legendary father, serving as the town sheriff for over thirty years following the mysterious disappearance of Charlie Wade—a “bribe or bullets” kind of lawman, as we soon see. Buddy Deeds, we learn, was popular with all of the different racial communities, and he refused to embrace the violence and overt corruption of his predecessor. Just about everyone loved Buddy: He was handsome and charismatic, yet Sayles’s decision to restrict the role to a few short scenes means that we have to reconstruct his character from the words and self-serving recollections of those who knew him. Arguably, the true mystery at the heart of the film is not identifying the corpse or solving an old murder case. It is the mystery of Buddy Deeds himself: Who was he, and what did he do?

We learn, for instance, that Buddy preserved the racial peace not by promoting understanding between the different communities or bringing people together but, rather, by keeping “like and unlike” apart. In this way, he was acting, paradoxically, as the “border patrol” within the very borders of Rio County itself. Perhaps, given the cultural worries surrounding racially-mixed relationships, Buddy’s “solution” can be construed as a stopgap measure, a pragmatic policy option adopted to preclude the sorts of racialized issues often troublingly addressed in the classical Western tradition. 

In the 1956 film The Searchers, for example, the conflict at the heart of the plot arises from the anxieties of miscegenation. When Scar and the Comanches kidnap Debbie, the long odyssey to find her gives way to a much more sinister mission: Instead of returning Debbie to her family, Ethan now wants her dead. Once she has become Scar’s wife, Debbie is permanently contaminated, unwanted by her kin. And even if Ethan must “ride away” at the end of the film, too violent and too full of hatred to join the civilized order, John Ford leaves us with the unsettling feeling that his racist views are internalized within American civil society. Indeed, it is the descendants of such people who make it necessary for Buddy to keep the races apart. In his position, Buddy cannot afford to play the good Kantian; the morally right thing to do must be subordinated to the merely prudential if peace among the races is to be kept. 

While it may be the case, then, that Buddy’s “deeds” are not determined by an overt, racial animosity, Sam seems to have drawn precisely this conclusion due to a troubling back story from his teenage years. Sam still blames his father for the breakup of his relationship with Pilar, which involved Buddy publicly humiliating his son at a drive-in theatre (as the young lovers watched Black Mama, White Mama—a quasi-blaxploitation film from 1973, starring Pam Grier).  It is for this reason, we infer, that Sam is so quick to believe that his legendary father killed Charlie Wade. That way, Sam’s public assessment of his father would chime in with his own negative and private perception.

Sam also goes to see Otis about Buddy, as he tries to piece together what happened the night Charlie Wade went missing. Otis defends Buddy, telling Sam that his father was the go-to guy for whites, blacks, and Mexicans. While Buddy did not take bribes, he certainly “took care” of Otis, officially “discouraging” other black clubs from opening in the county so long as Otis could get his people out to vote. 

It appears that Buddy had gradually transformed into a largely political creature, a sheriff more interested in working with building contractors and the chamber of commerce than with throwing bad guys in prison. The courage that he initially displayed by standing up to Wade’s extortion schemes was replaced or at least rendered superfluous by a more pragmatic suite of virtues. At the end of his career, he could best keep the peace by greasing political wheels and promoting economic development. We learn that he even let a prisoner (now the police station janitor) out of jail to help renovate his house. Yet despite all this, Buddy seems to have found a way of directing people away from the practices of the old West, the honor culture with its endless cycles of violence and revenge, toward the bourgeois virtues of civility and industriousness. It is under Buddy’s charismatic leadership that the uncivilized passions of timocratic men—men like Charlie Wade—are sublimated, redirected from violent confrontation to economic competition. 

This transition, then, from Wade’s tyrannical authority, to Buddy’s charismatic authority, and then to Sam’s role (the word “authority” somehow no longer fits) as a mere functionary of the bureaucratic, commercialized state symbolically recapitulates the history of the West itself. Buddy Deeds mediated the relationships among the different racial groups, but he also oversaw the transition from the old to the new form of civil authority. 

This is why the unearthing of Charlie Wade’s body poses a dilemma for the town: On the one hand, no one wants to be reminded of, or distracted by, the violent past, especially those who were victimized by Wade’s racism and murder. Yet, on the other hand, as the sheriff in a society no longer ruled by people but by law, Sam is compelled dutifully to gather evidence, follow leads, and solve the crime. The very fact that Rio County has effectively left behind this ugly era of arbitrariness means that Sam cannot arbitrarily drop the case, even if that is precisely what Mayor Pogue would like. At least that is how it seems.

It is worth pausing, here, to contrast Sam’s duties as sheriff with those of Marshall Cane, the character played so memorably by Gary Cooper in Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film High Noon. Recall that as Frank Miller and his men approach, Kane goes from one person to the next, asking for help to defend against the killers, but everyone refuses. The very beneficiaries of civilization and the rule of law are unwilling or unable to come to its defense. Sam, too, must go from person to person looking for leads, not to save the town from external violence—Rio County’s political worries are not “existential” in a Schmittian sense—but to solve an old crime. Instead of being confronted with weakness and self-preservation, he is faced with a different kind of failure of civil duty. Now, his interlocutors engage in deflection and obfuscation, the updated vices so recognizable in our political era. Zinnemann’s old West has now fully transitioned into a world populated by Nietzsche’s blinking last men. 

Indeed, Otis and Hollis (and possibly others) know full well what happened to Charlie Wade, but they hope that by withholding what they know, this new sheriff (“all hat and no cattle”) will simply give up and let the past be. Sam, after all, only became sheriff after divorcing Bunny (played by Frances McDormand), and his brief tenure may well come to an end soon; Deputy Travis is already planning a run to replace him. Interestingly, later in the film, Sam will admit that he only returned to town to become sheriff after divorcing and quitting his father-in-law’s business for the sake of rekindling his relationship with Pilar. So, it is the power of eros rather than a sense of civic duty or responsibility that motivates Sam’s career change. 

As the investigation proceeds, Sam is driven both by the evidence and his barely concealed Oedipal rage (a theme explored throughout the film) toward the conclusion that Buddy took off after Charlie Wade on that last night and shot him: a clear act of murder. When Sam angrily reports his conclusions to Otis and Hollis and fires off a list of Buddy’s other “mis-deeds” (including an extra-marital affair), the two men finally come clean and tell their version of the story. It is worth mentioning, parenthetically, that all of the flashbacks in the film are shown from a single person’s viewpoint, suggesting that history itself is inevitably perspectival. Moreover, all the flashbacks begin without a dissolve or a cut from the present scene. In an interview, Sayles states that a dissolve or a cut merely inscribes a border between past and present, and “I wanted to erase that border and show that these people are still reacting to things in the past.”

The narrative now picks up with the young Otis and his friends playing craps at the back of the bar. Wade severely beats Otis for not giving him a cut of the action (that is, ultimately, for failing to bestow recognition of his authority), and he tries to trick him into picking up a gun so he can “legitimately” shoot him. Wade played this same trick on Eladio Cruz, Mercedes’ Cruz’s lover, before murdering him. As such, Hollis, then Wade’s young deputy, knows full well what Wade intends to do. At the moment Otis reaches for the gun, Buddy enters the bar and yells for Wade to stop, just as Hollis shoots Wade twice in the back. So Buddy didn’t kill Charlie Wade, though with the help of the others, he secretly disposed of the body and remained silent about what happened that night for the next three decades.

Clearly, no one has clean hands. As Otis suggests earlier in the film, there are no bright lines (again, borders) drawn between good people and bad people. The question is: What is Sam going to do in the wake of this revelation? If his official report states that Charlie Wade was murdered (and not just “run out of town” by Buddy), then people will assume that Buddy must have been the murderer. But Sam will not be filing that report. If the Texas Rangers independently conclude that Buddy was the murderer, then Buddy’s legend is probably great enough to absorb the charge. At least that is Sam’s view. Reminiscent of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the cover-up surrounding a killing has effectively become the foundational event of a politically salutary myth. Just as Ranse Stoddard’s career was made possible by taking credit for the murder of Liberty Valance, Buddy’s career as a sheriff-politician is inaugurated by a similarly concealed act of violence. Buddy was able to be the good guy who ran the evil Charlie Wade out of town without any bloodshed, thereby associating his leadership with a different mode of authority—one no longer vouchsafed by the violence of a gun or a boot. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. 

Given Sayles’s interests in psychology, it is tempting to read Lone Star as a Freudian drama. We are constantly shown conflict between children and parents, the forces of imitation and antagonism that govern familial relations, and the ending, of course, reveals that Buddy and Mercedes Cruz had an affair long after Eladio Cruz, Pilar’s supposed father, was killed by Charlie Wade. This means that Sam and Pilar are half-brother and sister, and they must decide, having rekindled their adolescent romance, whether or not they will observe or violate the incest taboo. Their decision to continue the relationship, to metaphorically “forget the Alamo” (a reference to an event and a John Wayne film that was all about preserving borders) seems to go against the grain of what we have witnessed in the film up until these concluding moments. Surely, we cannot just forget the past; we cannot dispense with where we have come from. Faulkner said it better than Freud: “The past is not over, it’s not even past.” But can the excess of history be harmful to the living, as Nietzsche famously suggested? Certainly, Sam and Pilar are looking for some sort of escape, but it is not clear what the terms and conditions of that escape might be.

While The Phenomenology of Spirit might be a strange text to reference to sort out the meaning of this (or any) film, Hegel’s account of the conflict between different kinds of modern selves—“beautiful souls,” to use his language—points us toward the possibility of reconciling the divisions within even the fractured political community depicted in Lone Star. One version of the beautiful soul is depicted as a crusty, judgmental agent who is critical of those who fail to recognize the correct moral principles as a basis for their actions. We can see versions of this type of self throughout the film: the nasty woman yelling about “standards” in the early classroom scene, Mercedes Cruz heaping scorn on the lazy, thieving “wetbacks” she employs who refuse to speak English, and Delmore Payne displaying contempt for anyone who does not measure up to his rigid demands. On the other hand, the beautiful soul also presents itself as an ironic figure, one who acts on the basis of his own contingent, private convictions, realizing that there is nothing outside the self—no absolute, universally-binding standards of conduct—to guarantee the rightness of his action. These beautiful souls invoke the complexities of life and are willing to bend “the rules” for the sake of following their own subjective take on justice. In the film, for example, Buddy Deeds is constantly breaking the rules to satisfy what he takes to be his own (and Frontera’s) interests. Similarly, Otis Payne, the erstwhile gambler and womanizer, is smoothly operating his establishment, and, like a good politician, he is invoking the complexity of his situation to justify his rule-bending behavior. 

So what happens when these two types of selves collide? Hegel argues that the beautiful souls are ultimately reconciled when each gives up his standpoint and forgives the other. For the cranky moralists, this means realizing that there are no ahistorical, objective moral principles that can be accessed to guarantee the moralists’ universal convictions. Only the contingent standards of their community exist. Similarly, the ironists can no longer see themselves as completely above the fray, appealing only to their own individual values to justify their actions. The ironists must also accept the one-sidedness of their position and recognize their dependency on the community’s normative standards. The decision by Otis and Hollis to “come clean” and finally tell the true story to law enforcement exemplifies the ironists’ realization that their private convictions cannot override their responsibilities as citizens within a political community. 

The more interesting changes occur in the hearts of the moralists. We can observe these changes of perspective as different characters are reminded of their own histories and are forced to confront the unwarranted partiality of their present moral orientation. For instance, Mercedes Cruz is called up by her employee, who has been secretly helping illegal aliens cross the border. At first, she reacts as the hard-hearted moralist that she has become and threatens to call the border patrol. But then we see the flashback of her own illegal crossing of the Rio Grande decades before, aided by Eladio Cruz. She recognizes herself in the young, injured woman, and she experiences a fundamental change of heart. She offers to get the couple help. They all jump into her Cadillac (that vulgar signal of all-American success), with Mercedes still gently imploring Enrique to speak English. 

Moral transformation is similarly exhibited during Delmore Payne’s interrogation of a young, black woman who failed a drug test on the base. Payne begins in apparent confusion, wondering why this young woman is even in the army. As the conversation continues, we see Payne begin to soften his tone as he gains insight into the woman’s life. She tells Payne that she wants to “escape,” and Payne—looking down, perhaps thinking about his own decision to enlist—actually finishes her sentence: “the chaos.” We already know that his early life was difficult so a flashback here would be superfluous, but once again we witness the stern moralist reminded of his own personal experience, bending the rules (the soldier is let off with only a warning), and responding to the needs of his community. He then goes home and tells Chet that it would be just fine if he did not seek a career in the military.

What this loosely Hegelian lens can help show us is perhaps a way forward for our own damaged and divided modern communities. Our politics can only improve if we base our practices not exclusively on praise and blame or on the one-sided outlook of a single moral orientation. Indeed, reconciliation and forgiveness are only possible when we see that our perspectives are largely the effects of our own contingent histories and socialization. We can begin to be a bit more modest and less sure about what we think other people should believe or be doing. In other words, by reflecting on our own frailties and inner faults, we can be more forgiving and accommodating, especially of those we have rushed to judge as different from ourselves. As John Sayles shows us in Lone Star, this is how we leave the Wild West behind.

Jonathan Salem-Wiseman is a philosophy professor in Toronto.       

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