17 February 2006 | fictionsrus
Masterful Brechtian Treatment of the White Social Work Solutions to "the Race Problem"
Von Trier's Brechtian Gamble On Manderlay This time "liberal" is a dirty word By Jayson Harsin
"The movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society . . . America must be born again!" Martin Luther King Jr. 1967
"Dear (American) liberals, You're Idiots! Love, Lars."
In a nutshell, that is the message of Manderlay, controversial Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier's latest effort. Yet Manderlay is a complicated film that will produce multiple interpretations. Some will walk away calling it racist and anti-American. Others will find it a condemnation of Bush's war in Iraq. Yet, as I say, it is mostly a critique of American liberal politics. A condemnation of conservative racial politics is its point of departure. The film's complicated style and extreme plot produce intentional uneasiness.
Von Trier has cited German playwright Bertolt Brecht (right) as an artistic inspiration; yet one may wonder if he is reinventing the Brechtian wheel, one that Brecht himself admitted did not turn for others as he had wished.
On one level, the film is set in 1930s Alabama, on a plantation called Manderlay, where 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery is apparently still being practiced. Continuing the narrative of Dogville, Grace (now Bryce Howard), after touring with her gangster father (now Willem Dafoe) and his thugs since her departure from Dogville, stumbles upon Manderlay with her father's entourage. She is alerted to the anachronistic existence of slavery by a slave who asks her for help. Her father asserts that this is a "local matter," echoing a common Southern response to Federal intervention in race problems that was often coded through "states' rights." It specifically recalls the language of Martin Luther King's powerful "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which he responded to Southern clergymen who had accused him of, among other things, being a meddling outsider.
White liberal American intellectuals will no doubt have a hard time resisting identification with the white do-gooder Grace, who, like the North, the Federal government, and the social worker, believes that race relations at Manderlay are in moral terms not a local matter. "We have a moral obligation," Grace says to her father, as she persuades him to loan her gangster firepower to oversee her reform initiative.
But King was African-American and Grace is white. Should that matter? It matters in terms of Von Trier's audience (mostly American art cinema liberals and European intellectuals). It also matters for the history of white social and policy reactions to "the race problem," liberal and conservative responses, from segregation to integration, welfare to workfare, white flight to affirmative action. Grace's color is extremely significant. Resonances with Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust and Absalom, Absalom can also be found in the simplicity of the white liberal Northerner's analysis and solution to race problems. In this sense, Von Trier's provocative film is perhaps above all else an indictment of American liberalism (or liberal individualism), domestically and globally. All of these aspects should be considered through the lens of his Brechtian alienation techniques. Otherwise, this turns out to be one of the most ignominiously racist films since Birth of a Nation.
First, domestically: the historical debate about freedmen and resistance to them is important. While one could go back further, the contradictions of the modern liberal-race problem invoked by Von Trier date from the end of the Civil War. From 1865-1867, white southerners made very little effort to welcome African-Americans into a reborn American society (symbolized by the historically altered Constitution). The Ku Klux Klan together with the Black Codes terrorized African-Americans physically and deprived them of education and the legal franchise. While some American historians have noted the important changes of freedmen and -women marrying; establishing households, schools, and churches; owning 20 percent more land during the Reconstruction years others emphasize that even so, the country did not solve the problem of race. And the South in particular, in terms of land reforms, enfranchisement, and education, was not ready to change of its own accord. Many African-Americans exercised agency and made valiant efforts to become self-sufficient, yet they faced no little opposition from the planter class and some poor whites (even though evidence exists of some alliances between African-Americans and poor whites).
While Von Trier's film does little to emphasize the efforts made by African-Americans to exercise their freedom in the ways I've noted, it is virtuosic at portraying the structures many faced when they set foot off the plantation (symbolized by a shortlived character who, venturing off the plantation, waits for a sympathetic woman, a white reformer like Grace, but finds bloodthirsty white men instead). The role of a traveling salesman huckster also portrays the white mediation of emancipation through debt peonage and sharecropping. The failure of Reconstruction with the Compromise of 1877 brought a more precarious period of civil and economic life to African-Americans in the South.
And yet Manderlay makes claims to a historical context in the 1930s. Here von Trier's dramatic vehicle of slavery existing in the 1930s is again more metaphorical than realist. The point is that while the furniture of racism was rearranged, it was still the same racist edifice. In addition, the role of an African-American leader is played by Wilhelm (Danny Glover), a house slave entrusted with knowledge of the entire Manderlay plantation rules and governance. Echoing views of nineteenth-century African-American leader Booker T. Washington, Wilhelm's analysis is that under the conditions at Manderlay, his people will meet a better life by consenting to the old social structures. The fact that armed gangsters must enforce the redistribution of social roles on one piece of property, which disappears when they disappear, is not a little reminiscent of Reconstruction military occupation of the South and its aftermath. To read on, see the full review at http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/51/manderlay.htm