The key moment of Lars von Trier’s Manderlay comes after the narrative is finished and we hear David Bowie’s “Young Americans” over the closing credits, which are also accompanied by a montage of scenes from America’s turbulent racial history. You can guess what kinds of things: Klan meetings, lynchings, Martin Luther King in his coffin, poor people looking miserable amidst indescribable squalor. The odd thing is that this stuff has only the most tenuous connection with the more than two hours of film that has preceded it. The sudden leap into a multimedia slideshow of anti-American agitprop, while not unexpected from this writer-director, is quite jarring in the context of the deliberately non-visual and literary quality of the film itself.
A sort of sequel to the author’s Dogville but with Bryce Dallas Howard succeeding Nicole Kidman in the role of Grace, it is made in a similar style. Divided into “chapters,” the basic story is written in the now-artificial language of a 19th century novel, and is read in a voiceover, third person narration by John Hurt at his syrupiest. The actors perform, often in mime, on a bare sound-stage with a minimum of props. Buildings and other features of the landscape are outlined in chalk on the floor but otherwise absent.
The idea of refusing to distract us with anything too visual or cinematic seems to be to accentuate the thoughtfulness of the philosophical meditation on power and oppression that is the film’s real — or at least its earlier — point. It’s hard to tell if this comically awkward Marxian jump from explaining the world to changing it in the film’s final passage was intended by von Trier as a satirical comment on the heavy thinking that had gone before, a postmodern raspberry blown in his own face, but that is the effect it had on me. Not that the heavy thinking was all that interesting to begin with. But, unlike the rah rah lefty, down-with-racist-America conclusion, at least it deserved to be taken seriously.
The basic idea of the film is that Grace, the sheltered daughter of a gangster (William Dafoe), comes upon a community somewhere in the deep South in the 1930s where slavery never ended. The slaves, led by the immensely dignified house servant, Wilhelm (Danny Glover), continue to plant and pick the cotton for aged matriarch Ma’am (Lauren Bacall) just as if they had never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation. Innocent young Grace naturally assumes that all she has to do is tell them they are free and they will leave the plantation and put in their claims for the 40 acres and mule to which they are supposedly entitled by law. Gangster Daddy is skeptical, however. He reminds her of the time when she opened the door of her little canary’s cage and later found the creature frozen to death outside her window.
The canary’s name was Tweety.
The slaves on Ma’am’s plantation are meant to be seen as similarly unprepared for freedom. But Grace insists that “It’s our abuse has made them what they are.” Once Ma’am has died, she determines in defiance of her father’s warnings to play the benevolent white liberal and teach the poor black folks how to be free. Of course each liberal thought and sentiment is rigorously examined for any trace of patronizing superiority, but the situation is rife with it, however good Grace’s intentions. In the end the slaves vote — as she has taught them to do — but they vote unanimously for her to become the new Ma’am. This is a bare outline of the narrative arc which is filled in by Mr. Hurt’s exaggeratedly plummy narration.
There are only a couple of genuinely dramatic moments that rise above the schematic presentation of the rest. One is when an old woman, Wilma (Mona Hammond), is convicted of stealing food from a sick child in a time of hardship, so causing her death. Grace pleads for Wilma’s life, but the slaves demand that she be executed for killing the child. Are they free to decide these things for themselves, as Grace has told them they are, or is liberal clemency to be imposed on their wishes from above? The other is when Grace falls for Timothy (Isaach De Bankole), the glamorous young rebel among the slaves, at least as she sees him. At first she represses her own desires, but at a crucial moment she succumbs to a forceful (and explicitly recorded) moment of sexual domination in the course of which she is forced to keep a handkerchief over her face.
This amounts to an allusion to the feminist account of male power and oppression which we expect to cut across the racial narrative of same, but it is not followed up. Instead the point seems to be that Grace, in spite of her liberal good intentions, will eventually and quite naturally fall into the role of the new Ma’am. Within the terms of von Trier’s political treatise, this sort of makes sense, though its remoteness from the real world — underscored by the author himself with his bare and schematic sets and the stilted language of his voiceover storytelling — makes it necessary for the viewer to have an already well-developed ideological consciousness in order to swallow it. The reader will not be surprised to learn that I have not such a consciousness and did not swallow it. The interesting thing is that the weird and strident ending suggests that, at some level, von Trier is finding it a little difficult to swallow as well.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic.
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