Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle
Producer: Vibeke Windeløv
by Jon Cvack
I happened to arrive on my waning Lars Von Trier list only weeks after the reception of the director’s latest cause célèbre The House that Jack Built (2018). Again eliciting a divisive response and numerous walkouts during its premiere. This was the filmmaker’s first return to Cannes after making the infamous Nazi comment during his Melancholia premiere after discovering he was no longer of Jewish German descent, but rather just a German, causing him to express his sympathy for Hitler’s demise, trying to get off the topic, and sarcastically referring to himself as a Nazi much to the horror of his cast.
Manderlay was the second in what was suppose to be Von Trier’s “American History” trilogy. It kicked off with Dogville (2003), which while starting off strong, just couldn’t maintain its momentum for the three-hour run time; descending into some brutal and needless rape scenes while exploring a storyline in which each character possesses some degree of evil. Like Manderlay, it was shot on a soundstage with a minimalist set and cheap digital cameras, which while effective for a little while, also couldn’t keep up with the running time. Ultimately, my eyes and mind got bored filling in all the blanks.
The second in the series follows Grace Mulligan (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father Mr. Mulligan (Willem Dafoe) after they had burned down Dogville after both James Caan and Nicole Kidman opted out of the production. They arrive outside the gates of a town called Manderlay, discovering a woman trying to escape, yelling about a man who’s being whipped for stealing a bottle of wine. They enter the town to discover that, although the Civil War is 70 years past, slavery continues.
Grace meets the master of the house, Mam (Lauren Bacall), and is so disgusted by the situation that she decides to stay to try and provide liberty. Shortly after, Mam dies and the Uncle Tom-like character Wilhelm (Danny Glover) takes over. Mam has left behind a book regarded as “Mam’s Law” which you can check on the Wikipedia page, but essentially describes every type of black person (not using this word) Mam had to deal with. Each of these groups contains a leader who form a type of city council, which somehow Grace starts to lead; attempting to teach the former slaves about freedom and democracy.
I had to watch this movie in about four scattered chunks, as a mixture of boredom and offense played so heavily that I can’t provide much in the way of details. Grace grows frustrated while the black people remain completely helpless - they’re illiterate, struggle to learn, or even carry out the most basic democratic task. I don’t doubt that any individual kept in bondage could have severe mental damage or disabilities, but I just don’t understand what the purpose of this story was; made all the worst by von Trier’s Nazi comment.
The 90s were fraught with Southern White Savior films in the 90s - A Time to Kill (1996), Mississippi Burning (1988), The Ghost of Mississippi (1996), and others all explored the idea of relatively helpless black males finally saved when a team of white lawyers came around. This isn’t to discount the work that these individuals did in assisting with Civil Rights, but it seems we’re long past due for films that focus on the black heroes from the period.
Manderlay embodies this icky device as a privileged white woman comes into town, so overwhelmed by guilt that she tries to teach the helpless black people about the basic tenets of government who struggle to grasp the tiniest concept until she understands how they learn and saves the community. While she goes on to experience some cheap moral dilemma when one of her “students” (for lack of a better word) breaks the very law she created, it led to an even more offensive scene as the woman whips one of the black men; at first remorseful and then developing a strange and unsettling sense of sadistic pleasure
And again, we’re forced to discover another disgusting Uncle Tom character in Wilhelm who we learn has been the one preserving Mam’s Law out of fear of what freedom would bring about. There were interesting moments which explored the perils of government and the challenges of community organization, but ultimately, it felt far too condescending. Part of me thinks that my reaction was the exact point; as in the end, we see a montage of the last 50 years of race relations, realizing that we have a long way to go. Perhaps Grace’s character reflected most of us; believing we're helping but failing to offer the revolutionary change required. Nevertheless, it's a subpar allegory more effectively explored in Get Out in which white people want to think they’re helping when really they’re perpetuating the problem.
It’s films like this, and when I think of other white-oriented racial movies, that I realize that ultimately, the wrong people have been telling these stories; or at least, not enough black people have had the chance to lend their perspective. It’s why a movie like 12 Years a Slave (2013) is so effective; told from a position that understands that racism is far more complex than simply a byproduct of slavery or ignorance. It pervades our country like a virus, and unfortunately, I do not believe that white people either fully comprehend the problem the way implicit bias can have overt and systemic ramifications.
BELOW: A BTS doc I didn't watch but I bet is better than the movie
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