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"A Moment in the Sun": An Extended Interview with Filmmaker/Author John Sayles

Amy Goodman discusses race, class, labor, and sexuality with the legendary filmmaker-turned-novelist.

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AMY GOODMAN: There are so many stories in this. I mean, how does Wilmington, North Carolina, relate?

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, Wilmington was, in 1898, a city that was probably two- or three-to-one African American to white. Because African-American men could vote—women of no race could vote at that point—they had city councilmen who were African American, firemen, policemen, who had the right, even if they didn’t exercise it very often, to arrest white people. And that didn’t sit well with the kind of old bourbon Democrats, who planned a secret coup that started with intimidating black voters from coming out. Eventually, they purchased a Gatling gun. It was demonstrated to the leaders of the black community, and then told, "Tell your people not to vote tomorrow." On the day after election day, the Gatling gun was kind of wagoned around town. A lot of people were killed. And pretty much anybody they didn’t like, black or white, was put in handcuffs, put on a train, and sent into exile. And after that, a new government was sworn in that day. So it was a racial military coup, that was countenanced by the federal government, because, by this time, they really had decided, "OK, we want Southerners to vote for us. We’ve already pulled our troops out." You know. And I think, in certain cases, just, "Well, things must have been out of control there. I’m glad the white people got them back under control."

AMY GOODMAN: Is this period, this critical period at the cusp of the 20th century, an allegory to what’s happening today in Iraq, in Afghanistan?

JOHN SAYLES: I think it’s unavoidably allegorical to almost any kind of occupation. You know, certainly  Amigo could have been set in France during the Nazi occupation, in Algeria during the French occupation, in Vietnam during the French, Japanese or American occupation. You know, those kind of situations where the occupying force is more powerful, has more technology, doesn’t really understand the culture—or care to understand the culture that much—and has very, very specific goals that they’re trying to, you know, get across, you’re going to have these situations. You’re going to have people who are caught in between. You’re going to have, usually, a local group who’s willing to work with the occupying force, because they never got along with the local population. In the Philippines, it was a group called the Macabebes. You know, it might have been the Crow Indian fighting against the Sioux. You know, when Cortés invaded Mexico, most of his shock troops were indigenous people, not Spaniards. Those things occur over and over and over and over.

And I think that, you know, for just a citizen, one of the things that I think you should be able to take from history is ammunition to make you suspicious, to make you ask the second question, and not just accept the first thing you hear, from anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary filmmaker John Sayles. His new book is called A Moment in the Sun. His film  Amigo just opened in the Philippines, where John Sayles is right now. When we come back, we speak with John Sayles about  Matewan, about  The Return of the Secaucus Seven and his other films. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: "Lift Me Up" by Bruce Springsteen. The song was first released in the soundtrack of John Sayles’ 1999 film  Limbo. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation with the legendary independent filmmaker and author John Sayles. I asked him about his film Matewan.

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