Grace, Lars von Trier’s lead character from Dogville, stumbles onto the Manderlay plantation. Here, in 1933, slavery still exists. Grace is shocked. With the help of her father’s gangsters, she frees the slaves. The Madame of the estate, played by the great Lauren Bacall, dies, and Wilhelm, the eldest slave, does not know what the slaves will do with their new freedom. Grace decides to stay on at Manderlay and teach the former slaves self-worth and atone for the sins of white Americans.
Von Trier’s premises are always fascinating, if not a bit extreme and slanted.
At first von Trier seems kind of silly or at least simple minded. Grace is a do-gooder liberal socialite, the slaves dimwitted and ready to follow orders. The film, or at least Grace and the proudest of the freed slaves, Timothy, hammers home the fact that America had slavery, and that white Americans are to be held responsible. While this is undeniably true, it seems that von Trier forgot that slavery originated in Europe. It was the Europeans who took men and women from Africa and enslaved them. And before that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews. Slavery is not an American invention.
So at the start of the film I felt it lacked weight. It seemed untidy and outrageously simple, perhaps because after Nicole Kidman’s brilliant performance as Grace in Dogville, it was difficult to adjust to Bryce Dallas Howard’s interpretation of the character. But as Grace settles into her role as god of Manderlay and we get to discover the personalities of the former slaves, the film starts to pick up.
Grace, believing some order needs to motivate the bewildered slaves, introduces them to the idea of democracy, the system of America that, as Americans, they should already be well aware of. She creates a system of voting where each person on the plantation can cast one vote. That sounds like America, and for me the film became less about slavery and more a microcosm of American life using this extreme premise to prove its points. The slaves collectively vote on who owns the rake, literally on what time of day it is, and when it is appropriate for people to laugh, late at night being most inconsiderate of others who sleep. The film became interesting when it was asking serious questions: is democracy feasible? I don’t think so. America may be the longest surviving democracy, as a nation we’ve managed it better than other entities before us, but we are not a democracy. We are a republic, where the majority of the vote passes. People—some people—do not have individual freedoms. Well, yes we do, but in our country certain people have less rights or different rights than the majority. In a democracy this would not be an issue, but because individual rights are voted on by the majority these rights are subject.
This is not a political rant, but von Trier, an outsider, someone who has confessed his mistrust of the American government and American’s perceived (sometimes undeniable) prejudice against minorities is asking serious questions we in this country don’t often ask. We prefer to see isolated cases or the big picture, saying that slowly things are getting better and we turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of those who have to fight for their freedom. America is not at war with itself; there should be no causalities. No one should not suffer in a democracy.
Von Trier should know better, though, that every nation has similar problems. Perhaps it is America’s ideals that set us apart. If we aspire to be better, no forgiveness is allotted to our failures, failures we have in abundance as the director points out in a horrifying and oddly beautiful photographic montage of American racism using actual photos.
A film might have the right side of an argument, or argue its misguided case well, but propaganda means nothing if the material is not engaging. So how effective is Manderlay as a film?
One thing that puzzled me is Grace, her motivations and her ultimate failure (failure in ways that are unpredictable so I hope this sentence wasn’t too much of a spoiler). As a liberal, I can’t help but be offended when generally liberal ideas are scrutinized, but I have to say in the context of the film the scrutiny is accurate. Grace is simplistically idealistic and really doesn’t know how the world functions. She puts too much faith in the concept of freedom and never asks if she should. I won’t say anymore regarding the ending but I will ask the question: are black people offended by it? If I were black I think it would raise my eyebrow. Regardless, I found it fascinating, offensive, but still fascinating.
Manderlay is not 100% successful, but von Trier’s films are always rough around the edges. The film succeeds in its own convictions. The acting is exceptional, the casting, too. Danny Glover has his best role in recent years. I forgot just how powerful and commanding an actor he is. He is very impressive, and seeing him together with Lauren Bacall was strange and wonderful. Bacall is a legend, obviously, and such a claim does a disservice to just how powerful she is, but here her role is very small. She appeared in Dogville as a different character but in both of her films with Lars von Trier she has not been given anything significant to do. But her cache is enough.
Bryce Dallas Howard is not Nicole Kidman. Kidman gave her best performance as Grace in Dogville; she was natural and frail and eager. Howard’s performance feels like a period piece. She seems out of it. She’s trying too hard. Her delivery is stagy and unconvincing, but as the film went on I accepted her. She does, like all of von Trier’s leading ladies, some very brave things on screen. Unlike, Björk or Kidman however, Howard’s raw presence isn’t too impressive. She’s not bad but not on the level of a Lars von Trier film. And I’d hate to blame an actor for the unevenness of a film but when the material is this outrageous, the right performance can cement the outrageous in a grounded world. It doesn’t so much happen in Manderlay.
Writer / Director: Lars von Trier
Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankole, Danny Glover, Lauren Bacall