In George Washington (2000) David Gordon Green depicts an alternative Southern landscape and in doing so redefines the terms in which the South can be cinematically envisioned. Rather than a traditional rural South, or an urban modern South, he presents a South in some transitional new world. Watching the opening scenes of this film is in some sense like watching the opening scenes of Terrence Malick's film The New World. The similarity is not coincidental since Malick is Green's model. But the South we see in Malick's film is a South undefined—it is all Nature, unspoiled, undeveloped, unmarked by any historical or ideological conflict. It is only after we begin watching The New World that we realize that the land on which the events of the film take place is the land that will become part of the South and of America, and that the early events depicted in the film mark the first step in the process of defining that geographical space.
Green's film is superior to Malick's—The New World has its merits
but is the least successful of his four films.
George Washington shows us the side streets and back lots and overgrown weeds of the lower-economic districts of a mid-size Southern town. This is not a space we can recognize from most previous films about the South (Nothing but a Man is a significant exception). It therefore appears unaccompanied by the values and themes of other Southern films—no plantation houses, no drag races, no battle of the old South with the New. It quickly becomes apparent that African American children will play a role, and soon after them a few African American adults and young labor class white men. With their appearance some themes of race and racial conflict become apparent, but even then they do not appear in their traditional forms.
The children who are the main characters are from the lower-economic class. They are not profoundly poverty-stricken—perhaps lower-middle class would be a more appropriate designation. Poverty in itself is an indicator of racial themes. Yet the film refrains from fully embracing this kind of theme by including young white and black men who work for the railroad. They all work under the same sets of circumstances. When Damascus—a young black man around 30—quits his job on the railroad after being docked a day's wages , we could possibly see racial implications in the act of a white manager firing a black laborer, yet the situation could quite possibly have involved the white manager firing one of the white employees.
The world presented to us in George Washington is not explicitly a racially defined world, though the racial conflicts of the modern South are implied. Rather it is a world defined by poverty, limited horizons, and the aimlessness of modern times.
It would be easy enough to view George Washington as a sociological tract focused on children without parents—children of the modern Southern ghetto. Once again, the film does not categorize its characters racially, and though we can draw conclusions from the film based on race, they are not the main concern.
Descriptions of the plot of this film usually mention that it is about the efforts of a group of children to respond to the unexpected death of a friend. The film explores that issue, but it is not the film's only or even central concern. Rather it is about children and the experience of being children in a modern world. It's also about the struggle of children to define themselves and to come to grips with approaching and uncertain adulthood. To me the central concern is not the child's death (though he does seem to be the main character of the film's first third) but the boy named George.
George is clearly a strange child. Everyone knows he has a soft spot in his skull, the result of a fontanel that never grew together. He apparently has to wear a football helmet to protect his skull (whether this is his choice or something he has been ordered to do by a doctor is not clear). He can't swim or immerse his head in water because he has severe headaches as a result. People give him a wide berth. Some people may think he is mentally deficient, and his strange behavior at times may bear up the impression. Yet the more we get to know him, the less we consider his possible defects, and the more perhaps we see him as the representative character of the film, the vessel for the film's message, if indeed it has a message.
Nasia, the film's narrator, a 13-year old and preternaturally mature young girl, idolizes George. (Nasia's poetic, poignant voice specifically recalls the voices of Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven). The film's first scene shows Nasia and Buddy in the act of breaking up. Nasia later tells Buddy's friend that she broke up with him because he was too much like a child. She wants someone more grown up. After Buddy, she chooses George. It's clear she comes to believe in him as a person who will do great things, who will become president of the United States, who is (after he endangers his own life by jumping in a swimming pool to save a drowning child) a hero. George is specifically associated with the first president of the United States, George Washington. He is attracted to figures of fame and prominence. After a July 4th parade, he sees the man who played Uncle Sam in the parade and tells him that he was the best thing about the parade.
A lot of what George wants for himself is really what Nasia tells us that he wants, or imagines that he wants: "My friend George said that he was gonna live to be 100 years old. He said - He said that he was going to be the president of the United States. I wanted to see him lead a parade and wave a flag on the Fourth of July. He just wanted greatness." George becomes her way of dreaming about the future, and even though in some ways he might be the most disadvantaged character in the film, his aspirations, specifically his desire to be a hero, to save people's lives, to have significance, are what attracts her.
Others in the film, if not desiring fame and recognition, at least agonize over what they will do, over the future. One of Nasia's friends wants to become pregnant because she feels that would be her entrée to adulthood. Vernon, a large boy in early adolescence, feels ridden with guilt for Buddy's death. He doesn't know what to do. He tells Sonya, "I just wish I had my own tropical island, I wish . . . I wish I was . . . I could go to China, I wish I could go out of The States . . . I wish I had my own planet, I wish I . . . I wish there were 200 of me, man . . . I wish I could just sit around with computers and just brainstorm all day man. I wish I was born again." He and Sonya, who is probably no more than 10, try to run away and leave town together, but she rolls the car they steal and they limp painfully away. Sonya thinks of herself as "no good": I don't have much to look forward to. I ain't smart. I ain't no good. My whole family ain't no good. And for the first time in my life, I don't got no excuses for my future."
Another way that George Washington doesn't fit the mold of many other Southern films is its depiction of race. For the most part the children in the film have not grown old enough to become conscious of race. Sonya is the only white child in the film. She's innocent, corrupted already, and blonde, and to the black kids in the film she's simply another one of their group. Buddy and later George have frequent heart-to-heart talks with Rico Rice (played by Rob Schneider, the only name actor in the film). There is no sense of condescension in Rico—he talks to Buddy and George as equals—the fact that they are black and younger than he doesn't come into play.
In a more general way, the white railroad workers that Rico works with and with whom he pals around—advising them on how to eat a healthy diet—talk to the black kids just as kids, and the kids themselves see nothing out of the way in spending time with the white men. This is a South where race matters hardly as much as class and economic status. One might argue that this is unrealistic, and that the film portrays a world that doesn't exist.
In a sense Green uses the black and white characters as vehicles for giving expression to his own sentiments about life and fate and the future. Do kids Nasia's age and George's age really talk like the characters in this film? Do they have the thoughts these characters have? Is any 12-year-old as self-conscious and aware as Nasia is?