I went to see Lars von Trier’s provoactive new film, Manderlay (IMDB), last night because of this negative review in the Washington Post (found via Risky Business). You see, the Post’s reviewer, Philip Kennicott, implies that because von Trier has never stepped foot in the United States, he is not in a position to diagnose its social problems, specifically the history of slavery and racism in the United States. James Berardinelli is more explicit on this topic (although I didn’t read his review until after seeing the film), arguing that “in order to be able to criticize something, you have to have first-hand familiarity with it. Von Trier has never lived in the United States…. But that doesn’t stop him from attacking the fabric of the United States’ society.” Such ad hominem attacks say little about the content of the film and miss a larger point about the hegemonic power of the United States and its popular culture worldwide. Von Trier, as most reviewers will observe, seems to relish the role of provocateur, as his Dogme 95 Manifesto

While I’d agree that Manderlay stumbles in places, both of these reviews miss the degree to which von Trier is trading in representations in this film, intentionally pushing the limits of cultural caricatures through exaggeration and embellishment. My best approximation for describing this method would be to suggest that the film works as if German playwright Bertholt Brecht remade D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. If Griffith was “writing history with lightning” to use President Woodrow Wilson’s notorious phrase, von Trier is unwriting it, or rewriting it perhaps, with artificial lighting.

The first point to make about the film is its deliberate staginess (one reviewer compares it to a Thornton Wilder play, which isn’t unfair, but Brecht is clearly an influence). The film opens in 1933, as we see Grace Mulligan (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe), trekking across the country in a convoy of cars. That the cars move across a map of the sketched on a barren stage, with a giant Statue of Liberty drawn onto New York City, sets us up for the film’s allegorical commentary.

Grace and her father arrive in Manderlay, a plantation in Alabama that continues to practice slavery seventy years after it was ostensibly abolished by the Civil War. When Grace witnesses a black man, Timothy (Isaach De BankolĂ© of Ghost Dog fame), her charitable instincts are tapped, and she insists on staying at Manderlay until she can ensure that the “slaves” have achieved liberation. While such a premise allows von Trier to attack southern institutionalized racism, Grace is not portrayed as entirely innocent either. When she tells the slaves that they should have been freed 70 years ago, Flora retorts, “Only seventy years ago?”

The plantation itself retains the staginess of the opening sequence, with its deliberately bare stage set including walls and spaces that are drawn on the stage floor, suggesting actor’s marks. At the same time, the film is narrated in voice-over by John Hurt in a cheerful tone that stands in counterpoint to the sometimes brutal events that take place over the course of the film. This staginess is reflected in the acting, which follows Brecht’s dictum that actors should not impersonate, but narrate (acting “in quotation marks”), with von Trier using such a method to call attention to representations as they pertain to race relations in the United States (and to a lesser extent as they comment on US forign policy in Iraq).

One of the major motifs of the film is a book, Mam’s Rules that are used to govern the plantation and meant never to be sen by the slaves who work there. When the plantation’s matriarch (Lauren Bacall) exhorts Grace to burn the book, she refuses, thereby unintentionally extending their influence over Manderlay. Among these rules we see a classification of all the slaves into seven categories, which would allow the plantation overseer to control his charges more effectively, and by calling attention to these representations, von Trier works to challenge them. Most notably, he works to deconstruct the sexual fantasies about white women and black men that animate a project like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (in this sense, von Trier has a strange affinity with DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation).

I won’t explain the plot in further detail other than to say that von Trier’s film offers a complicated commentary on the history of race in the United States. The film famously closes with a montage of photographs documenting the legacy of slavery and the history of poverty and Civil Rights in the United States. The images, shown while David Bowie’s “Young Americans” plays, are designed to provoke, bringing a more explicit sense of history on the narrative we have just witnessed. While I do think von Trier’s film polemic is flawed (I’ll grant the point that it’s condescending in places and I don’t think he makes his commentary on the present explicit enough), I was quite compelled by the questions Manderlay seemed to be asking.

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