Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
—Graham Greene, The Quiet American
Manderlay opens with Grace Margaret Mulligan (Bryce Dallas Howard), after she has burned Dogville, making her way across the country in search of a new home with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe). They’ve argued most of the way, the narrator (John Hurt) tells us; despite her inhumane treatment by the citizens of Dogville, Grace retains her belief in man’s fundamental nobility, a view her pragmatic father dismisses as naïve.
Grace, a neo-conservative at heart, fancies herself an enlightened, progressive woman of 1930s America. Her father, of the realpolitik stripe, dismisses questions of morality and is content with the raw use of power for his own gain. That’s how you remain a Godfather, after all.
The two come upon Manderlay, a plantation in Alabama where slavery has been reinvented. This time, it’s “voluntary.” As Wilhelm (Danny Glover) the house slave explains, when emancipation came, Manderlay’s inhabitants weren’t sure the free world was ready for them, or that they were ready for it. For 70 years they’ve lived under the semi-benevolent rule of Mam (Lauren Bacall), also known as “Mam’s Law.” When she dies, they’re left adrift in an unfamiliar world.
Despite her father’s warnings not to interfere in “local matters,” Grace takes up the reins at Manderlay. She establishes a cotton co-op among the former slaves and sets about “educating” them on the wonders of freedom and democracy. They vote on everything, from ownership of a rake to the time of day to whether to allow late-night laughter. Meanwhile, the white family gets a lesson in tolerance: Grace forces them into manual labor so they might better understand oppression. At one point, in a fit of pique, she even forces them to wear blackface while serving dinner.
Wilhelm has reservations: “I’m afraid what will happen now. We slaves took supper at seven. When do free men eat?” Grace blithely replies, “Free men eat when they’re hungry.” Her cluelessness recalls Donald Rumsfeld’s comment during the early looting in Iraq, that “Stuff happens.” His inability to see looting as a consequence of inadequate protection by U.S. forces mirrors Grace’s retreat into abstraction; neither recognizes his or her sloganeering as a denial of reality, but the tendency springs from a fundamental self-righteousness. Such certainty demands that reality bend before it.
But reality rarely yields easily, and as Grace soon learns, the white woman’s burden at Manderlay is a heavy one. Running a cotton plantation profitably while treating your workers fairly is a difficult job; von Trier resists few opportunities to deride the capitalist system that breeds a permanent underclass of wage slaves. Guided by only her best intentions, Grace fumbles through one crisis after another. A dust storm hits, food grows scarce, and Manderlay’s inhabitants seek violent retribution against one another as their community borders on collapse.
As in Dogville, Manderlay‘s politics are shifting and oblique. But the new film is neither as virulently anti-American as von Trier’s detractors claim, nor as brimming with Tocquevillian insight as his admirers argue. The parallels between Grace’s mission and the American “experiment” in Iraq, that is, creating a functioning democracy among people who have never known self-government (and perhaps don’t want to know it), without institutional infrastructure, are obvious. When Grace says, “We have done them a great wrong. It’s our abuse that made them what they are,” she might be talking about U.S. invasions all over the world, before and since her own time period.
It’s more difficult to map the film’s racial concerns onto any recognizable “America.” At one point, Timothy (Isaach De Bankolé), labeled a “proudly nigger” in the book of Mam’s Law, reminds Grace of America’s sudden conversion to the ideal of true racial equality. When an exasperated Grace declares that slavery is wrong, Timothy witheringly notes it’s only been “wrong” for the last 70 years. Well, yes, the nation was surely slow to abolish its “peculiar institution.” But how does that point fit with the film’s representation of Timothy as the stereotypically virile black man who seduces, then brutalizes, the lily-white Grace?
The film’s race politics become even more complex in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Grace, whom Timothy characterizes as “a society lady who spends her time rescuing wretched niggers,” seems a stand-in for upper middle-class whites who have “good intentions” with regard to racial justice. Grace can’t tell her charges apart, and when Wilhelm suggests that she consider Manderlay’s black population a menagerie of creatures too fragile for liberty, a twisted echo of the typical argument for affirmative action. In a charitable reading, Manderlay reflects (rather than critiques) America’s muddled racial environment. The movie may not offer much insight into race relations in the U.S., but it certainly cautions against exporting American values too readily.
Manderlay‘s slideshow conclusion is similarly confused, the kind of scene that causes von Trier’s critics to label him strident and arrogant. Again, as in Dogville, set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” it’s a condensed, horrific view of American history: black-and-white stills of lynchings; color shots of abject poverty; smiling bigots and neo-Nazis; the Civil Rights clashes of the 1960s; stockpiles of firearms; the intact Twin Towers; young soldiers in Vietnam; Martin Luther King, Jr. in his coffin; the dead Malcolm X on a stretcher; and finally, a black man push-brooming the marble crags of the Lincoln Memorial. This is critique with a sledgehammer.
The tagline for Manderlay is, “Liberation. Whether they want it or not.” But this begs the question, “Who best to enforce freedom?” While U.S. leaders assure us it’s them, von Trier crudely puts the lie to that claim, reminding us that despite best intentions, liberty cannot be inflicted.