Alabama, 1933—during which time Lars von Trier uses the existence of slavery 70 years after its abolition as a metaphor for how America continues to treat its black underclassman. From the fire and brimstone of Dogville, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, picking up were Nicole Kidman left off) emerges a suffragist whose self-righteous indignation forces her to stay at the Manderlay plantation in America’s Deep South in order to amend the injustices committed therein. She and her posse of gangsters play a game of role reversal, freeing the blacks and casting the family of the deceased Mam (Lauren Bacall) as their subordinates (in one scene, the whites don blackface and serve the blacks their grub), but Grace’s exercise in democracy meets with resistance and quickly begins to cave in on itself.
On the surface, the story’s fantasy scenario is risible, but a key revelation in Manderlay’s final chapter recapitulates its initial proposal as an emphatic expression of the institutionalized slavery that still thrives in our country. Save perhaps for the white floors that come to symbolize the South’s cotton-picking legacy, the novel Brechtian formalism that stirred the more ambiguous Dogville’s philosophical inquisitions is put to uninspired use in Manderlay. Far worse, the lessons taught and learned are also more explicitly conveyed, which is probably why critics at Cannes were left understandably bored. But one wonders what these critics might think of the film today, a month after Hurricane Katrina—like the sandstorm (a sign of “nature’s extravagant power”) that blows into Manderlay and nearly destroys it—illuminated racial inequities long ignored in this country.
Partly inspired by Jean Paulhan’s preface to The History of O titled “Happiness in Slavery” (also the title of a great Nine Inch Nails song), Manderlay doesn’t leave a single rock unturned, casting its blame wide: from Grace’s liberal guilt to the comfort the film’s blacks seek in inaction. Von Trier’s foresight is uncanny (his hypothetical thesis corresponds with an egregious and avoidable chapter in America’s modern history) and his complex understanding of race relations in our country is unmistakable, which is somewhat surprising given how little he understands our gun violence (see—or, rather, don’t see—Dear Wendy). Is there a rationale for the man’s startling depth of intuition? The Danes may not have invented the gun, but Rob Schneider in Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo reminds us that the slave trade did begin in von Trier’s neck of the woods.