Grace, Favour and Farce by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 15, July 2006]
Manderlay, dir. Lars Von Trier
This is the second of Von Trier’s ‘Land of Opportunity’ provocations, parodying the patterns of American national mythology to expose the intimate interplay between elite liberal philosophy and practical brutality in shaping history. In Dogville (2004), an impoverished 1930s Rockies community cruelly abuse Grace – a stranger seeking sanctuary – as both the self-righteous superiority of her erstwhile advocate and the pious rectitude of the other townsfolk decompose into suppressed sadism. Their ambivalence at her sweet-natured humility is trumped by hidden resentment at her privileged background – she was escaping the dictatorship of her gangster father, but finally revels in his vengeful massacre of the miscreant populace.
The marauding gangsters next hit the Manderlay plantation in Alabama, where slavery persists six decades after abolition. Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) elects to stay and oversee the implementation of democracy and free trade – a regime change backed by some of her dad’s henchmen. But despite her moral repugnance at prior methods of classification and control of the Africans, her leadership makes error after blunder thanks to similarly overweening pride and arrogance, ignorance and bad judgement, and deeper levels of unacknowledged prejudice, self-disgust and conflicted desire. The freed slaves can’t match her high-handed high standards, and eventually vote for the old system to be reinstated – with her at its head. Again she flees – this time from her own dictatorship.
Manderlay’s minimalist staging and photography are again hypnotically effective, as is the final devastating Jacob Holdt photomontage showing the degradation of southern states black life after abolition – though John Hurt’s cynically reactionary narration is superfluous since this story has no hidden twists or puzzles beyond the apparently unredeemable small-minded passivity of the oppressed. Von Trier’s method narrows down characterisation as well as cinematic language, so that all we see are simplistic stereotypes rather than grandiose philosophy’s pretensions to universal essences. And this is precisely the subject matter of the films – here, Grace’s misrecognition of her own faulty perceptions, dubious motivations and fallible ethics as the objective reality of the external world, subsequently used as the basis for forcibly rearranging other people’s lives. The absurdity of hierarchical power imagining itself as benevolent is thus comprehensively deconstructed.
What remains unexplored are the complex subjectivity and sociality – and hence active potential – of the victims, beyond the manifold psychic contortions necessary for the Black characters to deal with their impossible situation. Conversely, the white former owners work together well with their ex-subordinates – the only glimpse of optimism in the film thus being partly attributed to the penitence of oppressors after their humiliation by Grace for their sins (she exempts herself despite protestations that ‘we’ perpetrated the injustices of slavery). Manderlay is certainly a withering critique of US racism, colonialism and exploitation everywhere, and the general delusions of statecraft – achieved through exemplifying and heightening the dehumanising strategies it derides. Ultimately, such exercises in bourgeois self-contempt may undermine authoritarian fantasies, but scarcely represent revelations for liberation.