Bright Lights Film Journal

On Manderlay: This time “liberal” is a dirty word

“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 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.

In the 1930s Brecht revolted against realist theatre, which he thought reproduced and naturalized the conventions of everyday life. He developed techniques to alienate spectators and remind them that they were watching an enactment of reality instead of reality itself. He wanted to force a critical consideration of the represented world, and his techniques included flooding the stage with bright light, using the most minimal props, and projecting explanatory captions on a screen. Von Trier uses many of Brecht’s techniques in Manderlay, the second film in his trilogy USA: Land of Opportunity. For Von Trier, the U.S. is and has always been a land of upwardly mobile opportunities for some; for others the opportunities have been dubious, basically to be humiliated, enslaved, exploited, murdered, and kicked in the ass — sometimes all in one life.

The film begins with a kind of placard announcing that the story of Manderlay will be told in eight chapters, each one of which is similarly announced throughout the film. Like its predecessor, Dogville, Manderlay rejects high-tech flashiness, forcing audience concentration on dialogue and actions. Its set is sparse. Von Trier’s use of these techniques is fascinating, but it is not clear that they are successful. After all, like Brecht, doesn’t he have a rhetorical goal? While many may leave unsure of what they just saw, few will find Manderlay uncontroversial.

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, Absalomcan 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.

Von Trier is using extremely exaggerated irony in order to make a larger point about the dangers and hardships “free” African-Americans faced in the society at large. Here he intervenes in the conservative view that African-Americans just need to exercise the freedom that was granted them in the Fourteenth Amendment. Likewise, he interrupts the liberal view that all African-Americans need is polite recognition, civil rights, and the legal franchise. More complicated structures discipline and organize daily life, reaching tentacularly up to the present and reproducing the racial inequalities of the past. This has been the unsettling lesson of African-American power/separatist movements of the 1960s and the larger Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One should recall that Martin Luther King died organizing for a Poor People’s Bill of Rights.

Von Trier’s other major indictment of American analyses and solutions to the race problem involves American social welfare practices. The film dramatically attacks the social welfare solution that took hold in the post-World War II period, which is based on the individualization and pathologization of African-Americans in poverty. Instead of extending New Deal visions of economic and social rights as prerequisites for liberty to African-Americans, poverty became medicalized and culture became racialized in 1960s studies of African-American poverty. The solution was to send in stereotypically white, do-gooder social workers to rehabilitate poor African-Americans. Even in the wake of hurricane Katrina this paradigmatic solution remains dominant.

The social worker is represented by Grace. Her reformist tendencies are called forth by a slave woman who pleads for her intervention in a whipping of another slave, Timothy, who was allegedly framed for a crime in order to maintain ritualistically the white plantation power structure. Grace seeks to rehabilitate her subjects, teaching civility and democracy to those who apparently were systematically taught to never know these white inventions. They use these new tools to first of all exact Old Testament justice, being devoid of Grace’s New Testament liberal sympathy and mission.

Von Trier carefully notes the slaves have adapted to their “type-casts” (seven categories that range from buffoon to self-serving, wily chameleon), because of “psychological bondage” and survival, as Wilhelm and the narrator comment. Genre narratives’ type-casting requires expectations of audience; in this case the white power structure makes race relations a genre. This reflects both contemporary scholarship on “weapons of the weak” to survive and resist in small ways, as well as the power of media to present images of audiences (the poor, African-Americans, women, etc.) to themselves, which they may take as “real,” and which may encourage them to perform their expected roles in everyday life. Studies of Hollywood’s historical representations of African-Americans support this point.

Finally, Von Trier’s film may also be an allegory of hypocritical American foreign policy. Using military force to impose democracy and dubious freedom is shown to be much more complex than is represented in White House speeches. Combine with that the irony that many analysts stateside and worldwide, such as Von Trier, view U.S. society as savagely unequal and unfree and you have the global indictment of the U.S.

Like Dogville, Manderlay ends to the soundtrack of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” with images of African-Americans and their history from slavery through 9/11. The sardonic narrator John Hurt leaves the audience with a line about African-Americans’ rejection of a “helping hand.” This is either fully conservative (as would be the supposed racism of the entire film) or a total indictment of the conservative position that African-Americans are free. I would say there is plenty of evidence to suggest the latter reading. Just as Von Trier’s trilogy is sardonically dubbed “USA: Land of Opportunity,” which can hardly be read literally, the narrator’s concluding comments are also hardly literal. He indicts conservative readings that emphasize legal freedom and abstract it from very real, complicated, but powerful historical structures and institutional relationships. Equally, he indicts liberal social work analyses of the problem and solution as inadequate fixes bound to end in self-hatred and frustration when the partial non-structural solution fails to bring freedom and civilization to those the conservatives claimed all along were barbarians and unworthy of their tax dollars.

These merits aside, the film’s biggest problem is not that it is racist but that it does not go beyond alienation. The audience is left to choose between the perspectives of the self-hating, frustrated liberal social worker, the accommodating African-American survivalist, or the conservative gangster-social Darwinist. Like many fashionable contemporary philosophies and stories, Manderlay depicts the complexity of the problem and leaves solutions for the audience to debate. But this is not just any topic. It is the most emotionally charged topic in America, and all the world knows it. What the world doesn’t necessarily know, though, is that thousands of whites and African-Americans have died struggling against these dominant visions of and solutions to the race problem. By not including any redeeming characters, especially African-American ones, and instead drawing on stereotypes, Von Trier invites the charges of ignorant anti-Americanism and racism that have already beset him. His choices, they will say, reveal more about the European mediation and popular reception of American history than about American history in books and experiences. That likelihood is aggravated by the fact that Von Trier has never set foot in the U.S.

Manderlay is a trap for the so-called educated liberal elite (forget about the conservatives: they will never see this film). Their do-goodism is seen in this film and its predecessor to be naïve and undertheorized. Uninterested in playing policymaker, Von Trier leaves his different audiences to argue about his depiction of the problem and, hopefully, about some new solution that has not been widely recognized so far. For this, Von Trier should be praised; no other visible cinematic voice seems to be engaging American race problems so fearlessly. But fearless can also be careless. The greatest value of this film will be the arguments it generates.