In Manderlay (2005; dir. Lars Von Trier) a young woman is traveling with his gangster father and his henchmen when they runs across a plantation in Alabama where slavery still exists. The year is 1933. She tells the slaves they are free. Her father leaves, and she undertakes to teach the African American residents of the plantation how to live in a civilized community according to community, democratic principles. She compels the white owners to live and work with the former slaves so that they too can understand their crime. She lectures the former slaves about democracy, community, hard work, justice, and seeks to roust them from what she sees as their passivity. She gradually finds her principles undermined. First, though she is preaching democracy, the henchmen of her father, who have remained behind with her on the plantation to protect the newly freed slaves, provide armed enforcement and force the slaves to attend Grace’s educational meetings. She makes some decisions that lead to problems—cutting down trees, for instance, that block an annual dust storm, causing crops to fail and a little girl to become ill with pneumonia. When an old woman steals food from the girl who then dies, the plantation residents vote to execute her, and Grace has to inflict the punishment.
In the end, Grace discovers that she has made serious misjudgments, especially concerning one of the residents whom she fantasizes about before actually having sex with him, only then to discover that he has gambled away the money the group earned growing cotton. She is so disgusted with her misunderstanding and his betrayal that she decides to leave. When she reveals her decision to the community, they inform her that the book that the former plantation mistress used to enforce slavery had been in fact written by the oldest of the slaves. What she thought she understood about the book is turned upside down. Rather than a handbook on how to handle slaves, it was a set of survival strategies for African Americans living in a country not ready to accept them. In the penultimate scene, the film returns to its opening, where Grace stopped the whipping of a slave. In this scene, she viciously whips him herself. While she assumed the slaves were thoroughly unprepared to live in the world, it turns out in the end they controlled their lives.
As the closing credits roll, photographs of racial crimes, murders and so on flash across the screen, along with photos of black leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Von Trier’s point in this film is that white people created America on the backs of slaves, and that it is illogical and morally absurd for them to claim they know what democracy is or how to prepare blacks to live there.
The film takes place on a large stage, on which the outlines of Manderlay are painted. There is virtually no set, just logs and props that indicate where houses stand. The film is divided into 8 parts and is narrated by Malcolm McDowell, with compositions by Handel and Vivaldi frequently heard in the background, and with “Young Americans” as sung by David Bowie playing as the credits roll. McDowell’s narration makes sure we don’t misunderstand what is going on. The actors read their lines in the most casual way. The screenplay is so poorly written, so contrived and wrenched about, that the film is nearly unwatchable. It’s a bad, overbearing Sunday school lesson with the moral depth of early adolescent anger. I’ve enjoyed other films by Von Trier, but this one fails.