Manderlay (2005)

Manderlay (2005) – While I know it’s somewhat divisive, I rather enjoyed Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Wait, “enjoyed” isn’t the right word. No one ever “enjoys” a Lars von Trier film. More often than not they violate your soul. Dogville was a movie that was somewhat brutal in terms of content. Manderlay has a similar “no easy answers” approach but this time on the subject of race. It’s a straight-up sequel to Dogville, being shot in the same stage-like style, where there are minimal sets. Buildings are marked by white outlines on the ground. Actions like opening doors are typically mimed. It has sort of a Brechtian distancing effect, which I’m sure was the intent. Von Trier plans a trilogy of films in this style (the third one, Wasington, remains yet unmade).

Following the violent ending of Dogville, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over for Nicole Kidman) and her father (Willem Dafoe, taking over for James Caan) are on the road when they come across Manderlay, a plantation. Grace is horrified to learn that at Manderlay slavery is still practiced despite it being the 1930s (quite some time after the Emancipation Proclamation). As the owner of the plantation (Lauren Bacall) passes on, Grace takes it upon herself to help the slaves adjust to their lives as free men. It is decided that they will all stay at Manderlay as co-owners. Some are receptive to this plan (like Wilhelm, played by Danny Glover) and others remain somewhat hostile (like Timothy, played by Isaac de Bankolé). This new progressive approach predictably does not go as smoothly as planned.

Where exactly the racial politics of the film lie aren’t exactly clear to me. It’s obviously against slavery. It’s also obviously against the sort of condescending liberalism that feel like every mistreated group needs its “help.” But I’m still not exactly sure what lesson to take away from Manderlay. It’s another film critical of American from a man who’s never been here (von Trier is deathly afraid of flying), which is supposedly the reason James Caan neglected to reprise his role. I don’t know. American films depict the troubles of other countries a lot and I doubt all of those film-makers have been to the places they criticize. The subject of slavery is a pretty big stain on our nation’s history and the ever-lingering racial inequality that still persists as an after-effect isn’t often addressed head-on in cinema. If a Danish dude wants to make a movie about it, why not? The movie is effective and thought-provoking and if you’re open to it, it’s worth checking out.

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