Race-relations melodrama Honky is an indie production with all the slickness of a Hollywood feature, including a sprightly score by Quincy Jones. The movie starts out innocently enough, tenderly depicting the unexpected romance between a white high-school athlete, Wayne (John Neilson), and his sexy black classmate, Sheila (Brenda Sykes). Very quickly, however, Will Chaney’s script—adapted from a novel by Gunard Solberg—takes a weird left turn. Eager to make quick cash dealing grass, Sheila announces to her new boyfriend that she needs money to buy a supply of weed. In a long scene that’s staged like the climax of a heist movie, Wayne uses a forged signature to get the money from his small trust account at a local bank. More crimes follow, including breaking and entering and grand theft auto, so eventually the couple decides to leave their small New Jersey town for California. During their travels, they become victims of crime instead of perpetrators. By the time it’s over, Honky peppers its dubious storyline with stereotypical portrayals of blacks, conservatives, gays, and transvestites. Try finding another picture that features a gentle interracial love scene, violent rednecks, and the startling vision of future Happy Days mom Marion Ross complaining about “coons.”
Like so many clumsy pictures about race from the ’60s and ’70s, Honky tries so hard to convey progressive attitudes that it ends up becoming inadvertently offensive. It’s defeated by its own aspirations to significance. The way the movie derails is a shame, because in many ways, Honky is impressive. Director William A. Graham and his collaborators give the picture a glossy look and, when the plot isn’t wandering off on pointless detours, a zippy pace. Leading lady Sykes is beguiling, though she was already in her 20s when she made the picture. Supporting players including John Fiedler, Lincoln Kilpatrick, and William Marshall deliver strong work in tiny roles, while Matt Clark lends his reliable brand of rural villainy to the climax. What’s more, that Jones music is pretty sweet. Alas, the central relationship stretches credibility just as much as the plot does, a problem exacerbated by the filmmakers’ tenuous grasp on with-it lingo. For example, Honky contains the following exchange. “Don’t get hung up on my hangup.” “I’m getting caught in your hangup?” “Your ego is.” Wow. Honky is alternately exciting, involving, and sexy, but, seeing as how the crux of the picture involves a white guy learning about the black experience, it’s hard to reconcile the film’s meritorious elements with the filmmakers’ backwards-looking portrayal of African-American characters as criminals, freaks, Uncle Toms, victims, and vixens.