Manderlay is the second in Lars von Trier’s controversial “USA: Land Of Opportunities” trilogy. Stylistically, it has much in common with Dogville, the first in the trilogy. Both sets are bare except for the Brechtian chalk outline of spaces. Both fables are carried along by the rich narration of John Hurt.
But with Manderlay we have new actors playing key roles – most significantly, Bryce Dallas Howard has taken over from Nicole Kidman as Grace. We also have a tighter script, 40 minutes shorter, and with explicit themes.
The story picks up where Dogville left off. It is 1933. Grace and her father are travelling through Alabama, when they happen upon Manderlay, a cotton plantation. Here slavery is still in existence 70 years after its abolition.
Grace decides to stay at Manderlay to “emancipate” the slaves. You would think that after her experience in Dogville she would want to find a big city and never leave. But no – borrowing several of her father’s mob men and his lawyer, she attempts to impose democratic self-rule. Ironies abound and… it all goes horribly wrong.
The plot was inspired, in part, by Jean Paulhan’s essay “Happiness in Slavery”, which von Trier describes as “about some liberated slaves who were starving and wanted their master back, because at least then they had something to eat. And when he refused, they killed him.”
It is possible to interpret Manderlay‘s message as a criticism of democracy and freedom itself – the idea that human weakness prevents the realisation of such ideals, and that happiness may not lie in emancipation at all.
A more common interpretation of Manderlay, however, is as an allegory of the war in Iraq. As such, it is seen as a story of what can happen when you try and impose democracy on a people not ready for it – good intentions gone wrong. This is an understanding of the film which von Trier himself has encouraged.
The salvageable part of this interpretation is that the imposition of self-emancipation is a paradox that cannot be squared. It overlooks, however, the fact that the “imposition of democracy” in Iraq is not a well intentioned error – it is the latest strategy in the same game of obstructing the self-emancipation of the Iraqi people. Those liberals who criticise US imperialism as “the imposition of universal values” fall short of this more fundamental observation.
The radical core of the film is perhaps none of the above, but rather its potential to remind us that slavery was not supplanted by a free society, but by capitalism with all its inherent limitations. The structurally unequal society into which the blacks of the US have been “liberated” is starkly depicted. Employment contracts, debt and “entertainment” are shown as tools to maintain the subordination of “free” individuals. As such, the film becomes a critique not of the liberal values behind which capitalism hides, applied universally or otherwise, but of the system itself.
In the closing credits the viewer is pulled out of the fable and reconnected to the reality with which it has attempted to grapple. A montage of photographs depicting the modernity of racism, in lynchings, riots, and segregation is set to the Bowie classic “Young Americans”. Recent footage of New Orleans could be added. This is a powerful and thought provoking piece of cinema in itself. The rest of the film is a bonus.
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