Lone Star: Race, Power, and Education in Texas

By Richard L. Merrill


This film review was written and presented in the course of a summer seminar at Yale University, July 3, 2003

Shortly after the release of Lone Star in theaters, across Texas and the nation, critics critiqued the movie. The overwhelming majority of reviewers wrote columns similar to Roger Ebert's of the Chicago Sun Times the "…film is a wonder - the best work yet by one of our most original and independent filmmakers - and after it is over and you begin to think about it, its meanings begin to flower." A few critics thought that the movie failed cinematically because the story was jumbled or simply boring, but some displeased critics aimed their disgust at the image of Texas depicted in the film.

John Sayles' Lone Star (1996) grapples with the power of history, whiteness, and the border. The film's plucky writer, director, and editor - John Sayles - exposes the racial complexity of Texas' past, and what effect it has on the present and will have on the future. In Texas, much like the rest of the nation, racial boundaries prove difficult to define in absolute terms. Understanding that Sayles uses several different scenes to clarify the significance of race in his film, race is the pivot-point of every theme in the movie. Previous popular books, articles, and movies (championed by the average Texan) generally skirt the issue Sayles brilliantly centers on. A few film critics have even seen fit to attack openly his "revisionist" interpretation of Texas, while praising the film as a piece of quality cinema. One such reviewer Michael H. Price, a movie critic for the conservative Fort Worth Star-Telegram, commented that: "Devotees of another 'Lone Star' - that is, T.R. Fehrenbach's famously conventional history book-may find some of Sayles' historical revisionism a bit much." Clearly, whether reviewers are aficionados of conventional Texas history or followers of the new revisionist school greatly influences their assessment of the film. Fehrenbach's Lone Star idolizes the past, whereas Sayles' Lone Star attempts to expose the past to a present day audience.

Texas' old guard quickly moved to defend their glorious past (often dubbed the heritage) they had constructed around classic texts like Lone Star - written by T.R. Fehrenbach. For them their grandparents' past and their grandchildren's future were at stake. Anglo-Texans or "Anglo-Celtics" take great pride in their past, a past that shows them annihilating, conquering, and subjugating other races in the Southwest with divine providence. Fehrenbach even admitted that after a few years on top of the racial pyramid Anglo-Texans began "to look upon themselves as a sort of chosen race," a race blessed by God with land and the power to control those on it. For the most part Fehrenbach minimizes the amount of text dealing with race relations in Texas by referring to Indians and Mexicans as "Red niggers, Red Vermin" (sic) the title of his twenty-fourth chapter. The Fehrenbach school of thought deflates the role of non-Anglos while inflating the role Anglos played in Texas, thus legitimizing their supremacy.

In recent years younger intellectuals have begun to view all the varying racial groups in Texas as integral players in the Lone Star State's past. By their doing so, the simple Anglo mythology of conquest is made complex with competing and contrasting narratives. One of the most heated scenes in the film deals with the Anglo outrage surrounding a "completer picture of the past." The faculty of the school wants to present both the Mexican and the Texan perspectives; fitting since 19 out of 20 people in Rio County have Hispanic surnames. In the school meeting scene the central character, a highly defensive Anglo woman, declares: "If you are talking about food, music and all, I have no problem with that, but when you start changing who did what to whom…you're tearing down America" then we have a problem. Her declaration fits with Ruben Martinez's notion that most Americans like things from Mexico, but they dislike Mexicans. The Anglos want to hold on to the legends of Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett because all of the central characters in the creation of the Texas Republic were white.

Several scenes in Sayles' work show the transformation of Rio County into a Chicano run province. The proprietor of the last remaining Anglo bar in Frontera recognizes that white control of the county is being diffused from the white oligarchy to the brown masses. Knowing that Sam Deeds will be the last white sheriff, he proclaims that, "You got to have your lines of demarcation between this one and that one; your daddywas a referee in this damn menudo we got down here…he understood how most folks don't want salt and sugar in the same jar." After Sam counters with a few quips, the bartender avows "this bar is the last stand, Se Habla American Goddamn it!" just like the Alamo. The whites view their honky tonk bar as the last place where they rule the roost. The thought of losing control after a century and half at the reins strikes a sore nerve with most Anglos who live in regions where non-whites are in the majority. The bartender's metaphor also cautions against miscegenation; the mixing of the races jeopardizes the power of whites and their coveted whiteness.

Mercedes Cruz's character demonstrates the complexity of racial construction in her ascendancy from Mexican to Spanish. Cruz crosses the border in the 1950s, when she is decidedly Mexican, but after several decades in Texas she becomes Spanish. If Mercedes Cruz is Spanish then her lineage could be traced to a white European nation and not Mexico. Sayles uses the dialogue of Pilar Cruz, Mercedes' daughter, to suggest how Mercedes became Spanish. Pilar supposes that "All my mother does is work. That's how you get to be Spanish." By adopting the Protestant work ethic, Mercedes takes on a major trait of WASP society. Also the revenue that she accumulates through her long hours allows her to grow wealthy and become an elected politician. On either side of the border money and political power whiten.

But the most whitening aspect of Mercedes' life remains a secret until the end of the film. When it is revealed that the famous Buddy Deeds had a long running love affair with Mercedes, Deeds epitomizes the white American male. The rebellious but fair-handed Deeds is the sheriff and a war hero. He even covers up the murder of Charley Wade; Wade murdered Mercedes' husband. In addition Deeds gives Mercedes money so she can start her restaurant. Sam Deeds' love interest Pilar is the byproduct of Buddy and Mercedes' relationship. Both children grow up thinking that their parents disapproved of them dating outside their race, when in fact the great "referee," (so dubbed by the bartender) mixed his "sugar and salt" by loving a woman outside the boundaries of his own race.

Another major theme which Sayles explores is the significance of the border. As Amy Dawes pointed out in her Los Angeles Daily News review of the movie, " Frontera" is Spanish for the border. Also the county in the movie is Rio or River in English. The river, namely the Rio Grande, serves as the physical border between Mexico and the United States. Sayles devotes a great deal of dialogue in an attempt to understand the importance of the border. Chucho Montoya lets Sam Deeds know the absurdity of a political construction of a border, when he asserts that: "A bird flying south, you think he sees this line? Rattlesnake? Javelina? Whatever you got. You think halfway across that line they start thinking different? Why should a man?" Montoya's words prompt Deeds to defend the international boundary which both governments view as mutually advantageous. Montoya pauses briefly and clearly affirms: "My government can go fuck itself, and so can yours! I'm talking about people here…Men." Montoya's words mirror the sentiment shared by most progressive people whether they live north or south of the line. In the days of Buddy Deeds (when the Bracero program was in effect) the border in the words of Ruben Martinez, "…wasn't a border. The line was broken. It was an idea, not a thing."

Unfortunately the slow economic times of the early nineties (Sam Deeds' era) made the line materialize and become real. Even Mercedes Cruz calls the Border Patrol when she spies illegals cutting across her lawn as they enter America. In addition Anglos felt directly threatened by the new immigrants because their numbers were becoming sufficient to grasp the political power,which their race had been denied. In many border communities Anglos saw all Hispanics whether Mexican or Chicano as eventual voters; voters who would elect their own kind - not whites. The rising tide of Hispanics was seen as a tidal wave of unwanted change by whites. When routed from political office whites sought refuge in their glorious past when they ruled unconditionally, but the new generations of historians and educators had decimated their heroic Lone Star like narrative, by muddling up the simple storyline with additional points of view. Sayles even shows how the bastion of whiteness can be infiltrated by a single Mexican woman who adopts WASP traits and mothers an Anglo sheriff's daughter.