The Burden Of History and John Sayles' Lone Star

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We should remember that history is not a prison. Even the truths of the past can be overcome by creating in the present a new and future-oriented reality.
Tomás Sandoval

Issue #28, October 1996


"Ours is a story about borders. Towns on either side of a given border generally have more in common with each other than they do with any towns further into their own state."
— John Sayles

In a scene from John Sayles' most recent film Lone Star, Otis Payne (played by Sayles' regular Ron Canada) accompanies his grandson through the "Black Seminole Museum" in the rear of his local bar. Perhaps the most respected member of the Black community in Frontera, Texas, "Big 'O" is also a local historian, spending his free time uncovering and preserving the forgotten history of "his people" through the collection in his museum. The history in his museum tells the story of former slaves and Seminole Indians meeting in the lands of Florida. It tells of their joining, their struggles, their migrations, survivals, and of their participation in the battles fought against tyranny in a place called Texas. The museum tells in pictures and artifacts the history which continues to live in the present through both Otis and his grandson.

The young Payne is learning this history for the first time. Otis and his son, the boy's father, had a falling out years before. Their visit in the museum is the first between grandson and grandfather, as it is between the young man and his true past. While his grandson is as much surprised as excited to learn he is part Seminole Indian, Otis is quick to check his grandson's enthusiasm in this newfound aspect of his heritage. He cautions the young boy, "But blood only means what you let it."

In today's United States, that statement is not very controversial. Groups which advocate for the cultural assimilation of America's immigrant groups into an acceptable and singular "American" culture surely operate from the premise that people can choose how they access their blood heritage. On the opposite end of the spectrum, groups advocating for the development of an ethnically conscious and proud politic share the belief in human agency when they rally people to try to more specifically utilize their cultural heritage. Even those who operate within the vast region between assimilation and cultural nationalism purport the notion that humans have the power to choose the manner in which they access their own histories. In the last two decades, culture has become inundated with messages of self-help and "unleashing your personal power." This philosophy has expanded as Americans increasingly believe that all they have to do is to will "it" hard enough and they can be set free from the confines of their past, their genetics, or their memory.

Of course, simply because people have begun to accept this principle does not mean that we are living in an age of human self-actualization. All the Tony Robbins and L. Ron Hubbards in the world still can't create a human species that is free to make the life of its choosing. Even if blood only means what we let it, there is still the inertia of history behind that blood telling us, and others, how and what we should let it mean. And, even if we will it, it isn't always possible to be freed from the burdens of history. Whether or not we — as a people — are coming closer to accepting a rhetoric of human power, the realities of our daily lives reveal pressures and tendencies seemingly much more potent than our mere will. Or are they?

On the surface, Lone Star is the story of a man searching for the truth in a town mystery and, in the process, his own personal history. Into this main story, John Sayles weaves tales of other people's lives, all in some way also dealing with issues of history. Drawing from the problems which tear apart our own social fabric, as well as the demons which plague our individual mentalities, Sayles uses this mosaic of lives to better illustrate the role played by many complex levels of history. In so doing, the film arrives at conclusions which dispute classically held notions concerning the nature of history, and it shows how the knowledge (and lack thereof) of history operates in human lives, and how humans can transcend their own history.

These conclusions are ones worth consideration, for in many ways, they speak to our own condition today. By more than simply echoing the mantra of self-empowerment and human agency, Lone Star offers insight into the ways in which human beings can exist outside of history by choosing to exist within the present. But the question remains to be answered: Is John Sayles right? If blood (and history) only mean what we let it, then why have humans always felt so compelled to act as they are told from the past rather than from the present?

Know thy history

"You live in a place, you should learn something about it."

Lone Star is a movie about the burdens of history. The main story revolves around Sheriff Sam Deeds (played by Chris Cooper). Sam is a man living in the shadow of his father, the well-respected (and dearly departed) Sheriff Buddy Deeds. Buddy (played briefly and brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey) was a man loved by the community of Frontera, Texas if only for the fact that the Sheriff he replaced, Charley Wade (wonderfully played by Kris Kristofferson), was the classic portrait of evil.

Charley was your typical murdering, bribe-taking , no-good law enforcing racist in a border town. He mysteriously disappeared only a month after Buddy came to town. Without ever saying as much, most people in Frontera assumed that Buddy played the lead role in Charley's disappearance. Because Charley was so evil, however, Buddy's guilt didn't matter to most people. The law under Buddy was endlessly more fair than it ever was under Charley. Sure, Buddy made sure that the town ran the way he wanted; he engaged in some electoral fraud here and again, and he sometimes abused the powers of the office he occupied for thirty years. (For example, he used prisoners as laborers to build his home.) But, Buddy wasn't a flaming racist, he wasn't a megalomaniac, and "nobody ever died under Buddy Deeds' watch." He wasn't a moral person in the least, but the town loved Buddy Deeds because he was not Charley Wade and, moreover, he freed them from Charley's reign of terror.

Sam Deeds, an unlikely sheriff who was chosen for the job by the political machine of the town (who no doubt hoped they would have a "Buddy Jr."), has a different view of his father and, for that matter, justice. While no one in the town would ever speak ill of Buddy and almost everyone seems to celebrate the legend that he has become, Sam, his only son, doesn't think of him as fondly. To Sam, Buddy was a mean, immoral person who not only victimized the town and profaned justice, but also never understood his son. In addition, Buddy took away the one thing Sam ever held dear in his life when Buddy destroyed his son's relationship with his teenage lover, Pilar Cruz.

All of this is history as the movie begins. By the end of the film, however, the revelations about Sheriff Buddy Deeds and how his son feels about him are all challenged. As Sayles challenges the history of Buddy Deeds and Sam's feelings, the film reminds us that we operate in the present from our knowledge of the past and that, all too frequently, that knowledge is limited if not flawed. Of course, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't attempt to know the past. Rather, it calls for us to seek the "truth" in the past while always being conscious of the fact that it may escape us because of our human tendencies in the present.

In the opening of the film, two off-duty Army officers are poking around in an abandoned shooting range. As one carefully studies and appreciates his surroundings, the other stumbles over ground with his metal detector searching for stray bullets, searching for relics. The ground they occupy has seen its share of history, as we learn when the metal detector picks up a tarnished sheriff's badge and, consequently, a skull. Sheriff Sam Deeds is called out to the scene and, before too long and with the help of the coroner, surmises that the bones belong to the long lost body of Charley Wade. Accordingly, Sam sets out to solve the mystery of Charley Wade's murder. Not surprisingly, Sam's primary suspect is his father, Buddy Deeds. The past speaks to the present, but the past is, now, only a skeleton of its former self.

What can you know?

"We're not changing anything we're just trying to present a more complete picture."

The stage is set. Sam is searching for the "truth" of who shot Charley Wade and, in the process, trying to uncover the history that lies behind the legend that is his father. Sam is greatly preoccupied with the manner in which Buddy may have come to power in Rio County. For Sam, even the compounded evils of Charley Wade are no excuse for his father having shot him. Discovering such a truth about Buddy would only further the unflattering picture Sam already has of his father. Of course, Sam's searches (and eventual discoveries) about Buddy are also revelations about himself. As the man who shares the name, the blood, and the badge of the main suspect, Sam's motivation is also to understand what and who he came from and, in a way, what and who he is today.

The town of Frontera is also searching for its true self in the past. Frontera is a town where "nineteen out of twenty" people are Mexican and the rest are white or Black. Of course the town's power structure rests (at least for the moment) in the hands of the white minority. The history behind this present situation is repeating itself, only this time, the roles are reversed. Everyone in town knows that in the next elections, for the first time, the Mexican majority will assume its place in the city's government as they already have in the businesses, schools, and churches.

Situated right on the Mexican border, Frontera has been the site of many crossings, in both directions. Its sister town across the border — Piedras Negras — is as much a part of Frontera as its own residents. Sure, there may be an imaginary line between the two, but the people and cultures are never constrained by that line. As a town in the state of Texas, Frontera has seen its share of war and disagreement. Currently, the town is a contested space, not only geographically, but also in the popular imagination of its residents. You see, the town is currently engaged in an all-out debate over history, over the story of how the imaginary lines came to be drawn.

Historians have had a hard time with "Truth" in the last century, to say the least. An onslaught of post-modern relativism, among other trends, has created a situation where the "truth" — singular, certain, and finite — is unattainable. Even if we always adhere to "proper historical methods," we are never guaranteed that the history we produce will be any more accurate than that produced by some other historian using some other method in another part of the world. Essentially, history has been relegated to the realm of perspective and to uncertainty.

In some respects, this is a disconcerting trend. The problem lies in the ways that people can use current theories to escape all history. By saying that all ways of conceiving history and, and all writing or telling of history are subjective interpretations (approaching but never reaching historical fact), the inclination can be to disregard all views not in harmony with one's own. Of course, any one interpretation can always seem less valid than another. But there still is and must be a method and reason behind the writing and telling of history. Like it or not, we have to rely on some form of fact before we can draw conclusions about the past. But again, we still face the problem that one fact can be interpreted many different ways by as many different people. Take, for example, the situation with Texas. Is it a land created out of the courage and independence of a people who moved West? Or, is it a land created by a thieving people whose greed for slavery ushered in the brutal conquest of a land that did not belong to them? For the people of Frontera, each working from their own present and sense of the past, it is both, neither, and much more.

The local history teacher is leading a fight to offer the town's children a more complete picture of the history of Texas and of the Frontera community. The teacher is Pilar Cruz, Sam Deeds' old teenage sweetheart. While some believe that history should be told from the nobility of the winners, others want everyone to remember the motives behind their victory. Pilar seeks for a consensus, fighting for a view which holds nothing back but, rather, understands the whole picture by depicting the complexity of the historical situation. But that is not to say that Pilar is valorizing a specific history. Rather, by understanding the relativism involved in history's understanding (i.e., the way that the present affects the past), Pilar stands in opposition to the "old" history which tries to assert a singular "truth."

The point is, while you can't know for certain what the true history is, you can still have an impression of it that involves your present. The townsfolk are fighting over Frontera's history not because of what it says about the past but because of what it says about their present. Whites, Mexicans, and Blacks in Frontera all cling to different pictures of the past, those that better suit their roles in, and understanding of, the social and political conditions of Frontera. Pilar, the teacher of their children, tries to speak to all of them by showing how, in a matter of speaking, all their stories are true. But, by continuing to rely on fact, her polyhistorical approach still points toward a truth — it just isn't as absolute and singular as the "old" history.

Sam's search reveals the same tensions about truth and history, yet in a far more complex manner. Sam is trying to understand the history behind this skeleton because it speaks to the here and now. The town is giving tribute to his father in the form of a bronze monument, as solid and unflinching as the "old" history. Through this monument, as well as in the popular imaginations of the townspeople, Buddy Deeds lives on in the present. Therefore, Sam is concerned with the impact of the history he may discover. If Buddy shot Charley, the truth the town believes in will prove to be far less solid than that bronze monument. There are limits to the uncertainty of "truth."

Bet you wish you didn't know.

"Imagine all that weight pressing down on you."

The truth carries a price. Because history lives in the present, not in the past, revelations about past history always affect the present. That is the burden of history, and despite all the infomercials to the contrary, that is the hardest thing to get beyond. When it exists in the realm of historical fact and not interpretation, the burden of history is almost insurmountable. If Buddy shot Charley, you can understand the action from a variety of ways, but that will never change the fact that it was murder.

The love story that is part of Lone Star sheds further light on this predicament. The love Sam and Pilar had for each other when they were children is rekindled when Sam comes back into town. Pilar and Sam never understood why his father and her mother were so vehemently opposed to their relationship in the first place. They assumed that it was all due to their parents' racist notions of the other's culture. Of course, as Sam learns, it was much more than that.

As Sam searches to understand his father better, he learns things that, at first, make Buddy out to be an even worse person than Sam once thought. One of these revelations was the discovery that Buddy Deeds had a long-time mistress. When Sam tries to discover who she was, he learns that most of the town knew of the relationship the whole time. His frustration continues until he learns the identity of the "other woman." It is Mercedes Cruz — Pilar's mother.

It takes Sam the rest of the film to piece together the whole story of Mercedes' first husband, her relationship with his father, and the truth about the shooting of Charley Wade. Eladio Cruz, Mercedes' husband, was killed by Sheriff Charley Wade. Eladio wasn't playing by Sheriff Wade's rules when he refused to pay the Sheriff a toll for "protection" while conducting his labor smuggling business. Sam thought Buddy Deeds always felt compassion for Mercedes Cruz because of how her husband was killed. But, Eladio was killed a year before Buddy ever came to town. Even more surprisingly, Eladio was killed more than two years before Mercedes gave birth to their daughter, Pilar. Anybody else starting to squirm?

Sam was warned not to go poking around in the past because he might learn things he doesn't want to know. Now he knows why. Now he understands that Mercedes and his father were very much in love with each other and their children. But, since the two young lovers, Pilar and Sam, were half-brother and half-sister, the two adults couldn't allow the romance to continue. The issues raised by the film take a very personal turn now. Where once we could be happy with the manner in which "truth" and objectivity have been replaced by interpretation and relativism in history, our comfort level is quite different when history concerns something as certain and seemingly unchangeable as genetics.

Otis Payne's words of caution to his grandson also suddenly become more complex with the issue of incest. If blood only means what we let it, then we can have some sort of control over the seemingly bronze-like facts of history. Perhaps there is simply a line to be drawn between certain types of facts and others—some you can move beyond and disregard, others, you are bound to forever. Tradition and history would dictate that, whether Sam and Pilar like it or not and regardless of the depth of their love, their love cannot continue because of the reality of their blood.

Now here's the juicy part. Lone Star doesn't agree. The film ultimately makes the judgment that the past is only what we let it mean in the present — absolutely. Instead of using the most interpretive facts of the past to lead us toward the argument of relative truth, John Sayles throws indisputable, objective facts at us and still leads us in the same direction. While very conscious of the burden of history, the film is also very positive about the ability of people to choose to unburden themselves from its weight.

Moving beyond history

"Forget the Alamo.

Sam's ex-wife is a perfect example of what the movie values. The two divorced awhile back because of her mental problems (she's a little bit "high strung"). When Sam visits his ex-wife, we meet a woman who is Texan by the very biggest definition of the word. She loves football at the high school level, college level, and pro level. All of her favorite teams are of the Texan persuasion. Dressed in her football jerseys and surrounded by football memorabilia, she is fanatic, white, and mentally unglued as she absorbs endless hours of scouting reports.

The point is, she is also living beyond her history. Even though the Texan she portrays is as fictitious as the tooth fairy, she thrives in her fanatic masquerade because she is able to disregard the past. As she laments about the football player who can bench press an awesome amount of weight, we understand that she is a person who has made the choice to unburden herself and live in a created history. If history is subjective, if the facts can speak to people in thousands of different ways, then any history is as valid as any another. Not accidentally, Sam's trip to visit his wife results in his obtaining the very objective information that reveals the "truth" about his sister/lover.

Lone Star says that history is something to be understood, whether or not the end result is something that we want to hear. In the end, however, we are free to choose whether or not we will live by that history. The truth, like the present — if not because of the present — is malleable.

Returning to our main story, we get the most clear cut example of this idea. As Sam probes deeper into the mystery before him, he finally learns who shot Charley Wade. In the final flashback of the film, we see Deputy Hollis Pogue shooting his superior, Sheriff Wade. He did it to defend his now longtime friend, Otis Payne. Hollis witnessed the shooting of Eladio Cruz, and he wasn't going to let one more murder happen at the hands of Charley. The truth in this case is indisputable. Buddy Deeds did not shoot Charley Wade. Hollis Pogue did.

But Sam doesn't worry about exposing the truth. Hollis (played in his older years by Clifton James) is the current mayor of Frontera. In all likelihood, he will be the last white mayor the town will have for quite awhile. He is also about to retire and live out the rest of his years in peace. With all that in mind, Sam decides never to let the "truth" out. Sam understands that history affects the living, not the dead.

Once again we see how the film understands history. It is not a thing of the past but a created reality of the present. Just as the flashbacks in the film occur without a fade away or a break in the action, so too the past is tied to the present in the most intimate of ways. Sam doesn't feel the need to assure that the truth of who shot Charley Wade is known, because that history can still affect the living. To let people continue to think that it was his father is fine. Buddy is a legend—"He can take it."

The final scene of the movie shows Pilar and Sam discussing what Sam has discovered about their relationship. As you might have guessed, both decide that the knowledge of their blood relation doesn't change what they feel for each other. As they decide to continue in their relationship and "forget the Alamo," they are making a choice to forget history.

That does not mean, however, that John Sayles gives no value to history. In order to move beyond it, he argues, we must first know what it is. Luckily for the history profession, in order to forget the Alamo you have to know it. Second, by using seemingly objective events such as the shooting of Charley Wade and the kinship of Pilar and Sam to communicate an ideal of the relativity of history and truth, Sayles doesn't leave us in a world of uncertain knowledge. Rather, he appropriately destroys a world of borders.

Lone Star teaches that there is no separation between the past and the present. The "border" which exists between them is only in our minds, for the past only exists in the present. Furthermore, there is no "border" between the objective and interpretive facts of the past. Both only have power in the present insofar as we choose to utilize them for our own historical imaginations. History is something that can and should unite people. The citizens of Frontera, Texas are united by their common histories, on their common landscape. Even though they may understand it differently, they are bound together through their present situation — a fragment of the past living and breathing in the present.

Our criteria for wading through the "truths" of the past should be based on our hopes for the future. The final scene of Lone Star finds Pilar and Sam sitting in front of a blank screen. With their decision made, they have accepted the past and yet chosen to live beyond it. The life they will try to create with each other is providence not of the known, but the unknown. They are at home in the wide, unexplored, and undetermined future.

Now I'm not saying that we should all go out and have sex with our siblings. But we should remember that history is not a prison. Even the truths of the past can be overcome by creating in the present a new and future-oriented reality. We should always utilize the past as we look toward the future. But if we always choose to live by the past, then we will never progress beyond its limitations.

And who said movies are just for fun?

Tomás Sandoval is a third year graduate student in the History Department at UC Berkeley. He loves movies, the Dodgers, and history, but he would have gladly given them all up for a chance to play guitar for Elvis in 1970. He can be reached by e-mail at the following internet address: spody@uclink2.berkeley.edu.

Copyright © 1996 by Tomás Sandoval. All rights reserved.

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