Manderlay: a not entirely satisfactory study of slavery in American society

Lars von Trier, “Manderlay” (2005)

The sequel to “Dogville” is an interesting philosophical if rather slower and less action-packed inquiry on the nature of freedom and democracy and on the insidious effects of imperialism and slavery on societies. In particular, the role of those individuals or countries that free people from oppression and then try to teach or demonstrate democracy to the newly freed, and the hypocrisies often inherent in such actions, comes under scrutiny. Lars von Trier’s pessimism about humanity and its potential to overcome its flaws becomes an asset here: no matter that an angel comes to free people from their shackles and to teach them a new way of life that will help them achieve their full potential as individuals, people end up backsliding into habits and destructive ways of thinking and behaving because these have been ingrained in them by custom and social pressure.

After leaving Dogville in flames, Grace and her entourage of gangsters travel through Depression-era America and enter Louisiana where they come across a cotton plantation that’s so remote that the Civil War has never touched the place and it’s still being run as a slave plantation. Grace insists on staying on at the plantation with her father’s lawyer and a small group of hitmen so she can free the slaves and educate them for their new roles as free people. The white family is reduced to chattel and the former slaves become joint owners of the plantation and its output under contracts drawn up by the lawyer. Grace finds a code of conduct called Mam’s Law which places all the adult slaves in a hierarchy that allocates each slave his/her particular role and set of expected behaviours; this code disgusts her and she does away with it.

As the film progresses, various problems beset the utopian community. Some of these issues are of Grace’s doing: she orders trees around the plantation to be felled for timber, leaving crops vulnerable to the severe dust storm that devastates everything and leaves everyone starving. The community is forced to kill their only donkey to feed a sick child while all the women including Grace are reduced to eating dirt. The child dies from hunger and malnutrition and one woman confesses she had secretly stolen and eaten the child’s meals. The community then hold a trial and sentence the guilty woman to death.

Manderlay’s affairs steadily improve and the cotton harvest is brought in and sold. However one ex-slave, Timothy, steals the money earned from the cotton sale and wastes it in drink. Grace not only learns of Timothy’s misdeed but also discovers who wrote Mam’s Law and the reason this was done: it was done to maintain the slave hierarchy set up by Mam to help the ex-slaves survive together in a white-dominated world hostile to them. Thus do the ex-slaves turn the tables upon Grace who does not find the truth about Manderlay and her own conduct at Manderlay at all palatable.

The minimal stage settings help to distance the audience from the characters and the plot (as does also John Hurt’s narration) and throws the emphasis onto the plot and its nuances. The acting performances are surprisingly good and the young Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard, not only inhabits and fleshes out Grace fully as a well-meaning liberal innocent but even shows her Dogville predecessor Nicole Kidman a lesson or two about injecting warmth and life into the character. The cast which includes Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and (in a very small role) Lauren Bacall gives good support to Howard who appears in nearly every scene as the film’s narrative is so focused on her character.

The plot does seem quite predictable: once Grace gets the socialist community up and running, and given that Lars von Trier is God in this little universe, one can expect various disasters to afflict this little utopia and break it apart. Von Trier deftly shows how one mishap leads to another as a result of a decision Grace makes: this serves to show how one crucial choice, made wrongly if innocently, can have severe consequences later down the track and lead to profound ethical dilemmas beyond Grace’s ability to solve. In an effort to mould her followers into a model democracy, she makes one mistake after another (in effect becoming another slave-master after Lauren Bacall’s Mam) and becomes mired in her own hypocrisy as the people apply her lessons a little too diligently and eventually catch her out.

The film appears to be critical of both the oppressor and the oppressed: the oppressor for enslaving people in the first place, then “freeing” them but expecting them to conform to a new set of rules and over-riding or punishing the freed people when they follow the lessons too literally or don’t perform as expected; and the oppressed for retaining the habits and attitudes learned during their enslavement, not really wanting freedom and democracy, or using those institutions and ideals to satisfy their immediate physical needs and doing no more to enrich themselves or contribute to the advance of democracy. Grace’s utopia ends up more or less back at square one and one can’t help but think that Mam before her tried something similar to what Grace has attempted with the people on the plantation before. To a point Lars von Trier is right in condemning the two sides but what is missing is a critique of the economic and social system that made the institution of slavery and the mindsets it fostered in slave-owners and the enslaved alike possible. Grace makes the mistakes she does because she has no understanding of the economic and social context in which Manderlay was operating before she took over the place. She does not listen to the ex-slaves and they for their part are reluctant to criticise her or warn her of what she’s doing wrong as their leader. She forges ahead with grand plans about how to run the plantation without consulting with the slaves and the former slave-owning family about how things were done and how they might be improved rather than tossed away.

A superficial parallel can be drawn between Grace and American attempts to impose democracy and freedom across the world over the past century: the reality is that the US has always been cynical in bringing abstract ideals to other countries as a cover for controlling other people’s land and resources and divesting them of their wealth to benefit a few individuals in the American political and economic elite. At this point in time, the US is aiding a so-called government reliant on gangs of fascist thugs and imported mercenaries to impose harsh control and economic austerity on an unwilling public in Ukraine. The end result of the EuroMaidan putsch against a legitimate if corrupt government with violence is far from bringing democracy, prosperity and freedom to the Ukrainians – it is to sack Ukraine of its wealth and to install NATO missiles right up against the border with Russia, Russia itself ultimately being the target for daring to follow its own political and economic path and to support Syria against Saudi and Qatari-funded “rebels”. There is quite a lot in “Manderlay” that echoes current events and will continue to do so as long as the US remains arrogant and regards itself as a superpower not bound by the lessons and warnings of history.

On another level, the fact that Manderlay despite Grace’s best attempts at reform winds up as impoverished as before, with the “slaves” as enslaved as ever – and insinuating that Manderlay for all its apparent pre-Grace innocence is the way it is simply because the slaves prefer to be be slaves – probably tells us much more about von Trier’s narrow and rather pig-headed view of humanity and its potential for change, and his failure to research very deeply into the institution of slavery and how it degraded both the slave-owners and the enslaved alike, than it does about people. (Perhaps it is a coincidence after all that von Trier’s film was released a couple of years after the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq; in the time after the invasion and before the film, news of atrocities inflicted by US and UK troops on Iraqi civilians filtered out to the West.) Passivity and acting according to the letter of the law may not necessarily indicate lazy, pleasure-seeking, unredeemable natures; they may be forms of rebellion and resistance, and Manderlay’s people have every right to suspect Grace of having ulterior motives in trying to force freedom and democracy on them if she is not honest with them about why she is doing what she does. There is little in the film to suggest that she shares her previous experiences with them as a way of being open. To return to the point I’m making, even Steve McQueen’s recent “12 Years a Slave”, limited as it was by its director’s vision and his tendency to make mountains out of certain mole-hills, did a better job of exploring the psychology of the master-slave relationship. One might have expected von Trier with his greater experience as a director and the opportunity offered by the script to explore the institution of slavery and its effect on human psychology and culture in some depth.

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