The Sit-Down

Here for SIFF this spring, John Sayles discussed the origins of Sunshine State.

Seattle Weekly: Mary Steenburgen’s character says, “People hate history.” Why is that?

John Sayles: I think Americans are uncomfortable with their own real history. That always has interested me: What relationship do people have with history anymore? Usually, history is pretty awful and bloody; it’s about people murdering each other over land. But what happens when you make it into a product? Does it mean anything to you anymore? When does it just become a story that you sell people when you’re dressed up in that pirate suit?

So the film’s cheesy Buccaneer Days festival glosses over unpleasant, unsalable historical truths?

Pirates were scum of the earth—rapists, slave-running murderers, and thieves. How did they become cute, and why are we having a weekend dedicated to them? These things become a tradition, and people don’t question them anymore.

But can invented traditions finally achieve a kind of reality?

Here’s Florida, which is a place that has a very rich and violent history, but it’s a state that was populated mostly because of advertising. And what that advertising created was this iconic idea of the Sunshine State, of the vacation paradise, of the orange trees and the flamingos and all that stuff that was in the opening credits of Miami Vice—even before it existed! The developers took that idea and they sold land; and they took the money they got for that land and they actually dredged and filled and created the land. Certainly the coasts of Florida were planned before they existed.

Given all Florida’s new residents who came because of the ads, is there any genuine history or community left there?

I think more often now people are retreating into these gated communities. And really their culture is mass-media culture. It’s “nature on a leash.” It is a created environment made of a bit of this and a bit of that. They are upper-middle-class to upper-class Americans who consume certain products. That may not be bad . . . but it’s not the same thing as having any kind of roots.

Speaking of roots, what about the old traditions of black-owned communities like American Beach— did integration destroy them?

It killed a big hunk of the black middle class, because their economic status depended on integration. Those businesses went under one-two-three. It’s a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Any change is good for somebody and bad for somebody else. When you assimilate, you get something; you get entr饠into this new world, but you have to give something up. The question is: Did you give up more than you got?