Eureka, I have found it – the most racist movie.
Usually contenders for this title rely merely on unfortunate stereotypes. Song of the South, Gone with the Wind, Birth of a Nation. It’s beating a dead horse to say that “racism” is a bit ill-defined, extending to respectful portrayals of a putatively Hispanic character by a 0% rather than 5% Aztec actor. The low hanging fruit is white actors in blackface or depictions of happy slaves. The more refined of your racist films will portray a straightforward “white savior”, ie, a bankable protagonist, or show blacks as uniquely threatening (unless one is going for that gritty urban flavor. It’s complicated).
Manderlay has little of this, but manages a series of neat tricks to distract from the knife it slips in. I suspect the most important is raw obscurity. Director Lars von Trier is notoriously misanthropic and hostile towards the notion of “entertainment” as such, and Manderlay is set up to scream “art film”. It was filmed on a nearly empty soundstage in Denmark, with minimal lighting or ornamentation and tape merely indicating where walls would be. Title cards, a smug English narrator providing commentary, and an orchestral score complete the aesthetic. By my estimation, the number of blacks who were not actors in the film and watched it all the way through is about four (and they’re all based Igbo film studies majors).
I don’t believe this to be a Tarkovsky-esque decision to avoid censorship based on the subject matter, given von Trier’s other similar output. But it was probably nonetheless a necessary precondition, because the eternal Euro is about to inform you of his opinion on American race relations. Uh oh.
So there’s this family of gangsters on the run in Alabama, circa the 1930s – Grace, her father, and his crew. They happen upon Manderlay, a plantation where evidently slavery has never ended. Grace intervenes to free them, because of course, “we have done them a great wrong; our abuse has made them what they are”. Mam, the matron of the plantation, dies, but not before revealing “Mam’s Law”, the code of the plantation. It details the seven kinds of n****r (proudy, talkin’, weepin’, hittin’, clownin’, losin’, and pleasin’, respectively – tag yourself I guess), and what to do about them – appropriate rations, punishment for offenses, the regimentation of the schedule, etc.
(Unlike von Trier’s production, the Weinstein Company did not finance an N-word pass for the Sun, so we must be careful in quoting the movie, but these are all quotes).
Of course Grace, being a nice liberal, stays on to manage their transition to freedom and democracy. They lampshade the “white savior” motif, as Grace’s father asks if she’s waiting for them to come out and thank her for her beneficence, and raises the possibility she may do more harm than good. One of the ex-slaves refers to her as a “society lady who spends her time rescuing wretched n****rs”. Okay – we’re aware of what we’re doing here, and presumably there’s going to be a twist. Act I, and we’re still on firm ground. Will everyone learn a valuable lesson here?
Grace teaches them how to vote – specifically, on who receives a “little broken rake” (they refuse her proposal of enlightened socialistic ownership), and on what time to set the clock to. Baby steps. Meanwhile she encourages them to cut timber to repair their shanty, which destroys the only windbreak stopping dust storms from swallowing the crops. A shiftless plantationeer steals the meager food supplies intended for a sick child, killing them, and this is where Grace’s tolerance for democracy ends – she has one of her father’s goons prevent the ex-slaves from exacting justice, so she, as someone who feels worse about it, can kill the responsible person herself.
This is not a flattering portrayal of Grace, which is the second reason this film has avoided cancellation.
On top of this, it rapidly becomes apparent she is “horny” for what von Trier terms “black bodies” (2005, man. This is GWB era, way ahead of its time). Unfortunately, the particular one she is graphically metoo’d by also steals the plantation’s entire profit from the sale of their cotton crop, and gambles and drinks a good portion of it away in town. This disillusions Grace, and she resolves to leave and go back to her gangster father.
Now, the Shyamalan twist. It turns out – Mam’s Law, the classification by type, forbidding cutting of trees, handling of money, prescribing of brutal punishment for infraction, and the maintenance of the institution of slavery itself – was not in fact Mam’s at all. The senior of the slaves drew it up when slavery was to be ended, as a way of preserving the social stability of the plantation. Grace refers to it as the “most evil document ever written”. The author says, “you could call it that. Or you could call it the lesser of two evils”. He then proceeds to give a justification that is essentially a rewrite of George Fitzhugh’s extreme antebellum anti-abolitionist writing (a worthwhile read, incidentally, to get the feeling of the time), “as relevant now as it ever was”. He further explains that, “as America is not ready to accept us negroes as equals”, they are better off as slaves (okay, but von Trier just explicitly spent the entire film exploring the disaster of the pretense of equality, or even mere independence). They put it to a vote, and demand a new Mam, specifically Grace. In fact, they threaten to imprison her until she agrees to become their master. von Trier, in a Salvador Dali sense, doesn’t do irony – he is irony.
The denouement – even after this compelling offer, she is still disillusioned, and still wants to leave. No longer dressed in LARPing field clothes, but rather her fine furs, she convinces the slaves (no longer ex-) to take down a section of fence, for her to strap the thief to and whip as punishment, so she can escape through the gap. Of course, as a nice liberal, she refuses to actually punish him – until he goads her by pointing out that though it’s impossible to revile them enough for their willing servitude, wipepo made them what they are. She whips him near to death, as her father watches from a distance, and, determining she has outgrown her pretensions and has the situation mastered (heh), leaves her to her fate. As Grace flees a torch wielding mob of “swarthy pursuers”, the narrator informs us, perhaps as Grace’s internal monologue, perhaps as ironic directorial commentary, “America had proffered its hand, but if anybody refused to see a helping hand, he really only had himself to blame.”
We close with a montage of vintage anti integration protests and stills from videos of police brutality.
This the mother of all “what did he mean by this”. You could posit it as not necessarily a “racist” movie, but a merely anti-American movie (it’s worth noting that von Trier has thus far never been to America, except to the extent that everyone now lives in America), implying that American “race relations” are a simply insoluble problem, condemning whites to a position of imperial brutality and blacks to a position of perpetual inferiority. This seems to be what most reviewers go with, albeit usually not in those stark terms, and with too much credence paid to the token blame-laying at the feet of whites and white liberals specifically. Although von Trier makes sure to have both whites and blacks declare at both ends of the film that whites are responsible for this mess, he also has the black characters state outright that one of the attractive features of Mam’s Law is that it allows the slaves to blame their masters for their circumstances, despite being quite capable of escaping them. He also implies that the physical punishment has an effect of cultivating feelings of pride and moral superiority by the slaves, which has some interesting implications for the closing montage of anti-black violence.
But I say a better reading is to take it as a quasi Lovecraftian bio-horror response, as the naive Dane discovers that black people exist and do be like that sometimes, with obvious consequences for a functioning society. This becomes clear with the quasi fetishistic filming of naked slaves, and especially the graphic portrayal of Grace’s rape (but not, you know, rape-rape). In the story structure, this act of intercourse serves to break the tension that keeps Grace emotionally attached to the plantation, and physically implants the corruption of the plantation in her. The implication of her underlying motives, and allegorically those of the Nice White Ladies she represents, is unavoidable, as are the consequences. In the context of the final speech by the thief tied to the whipping post – the lib creates the monster that is the n****r, and the n****r then turns the lib into a monster. In this reading, von Trier buys in totally to Knut Hamsun’s infamous description of America as a “stud farm for mulattos”.
But regardless, a bunch of interpretations are plausible, and it’s neatly ambiguous – the third reason this film is not widely condemned.
But the ambiguity is not all-encompassing. There is no reading that avoids the fact that in the context of the film’s allegory, blacks are a clearly reactionary element that at every turn frustrate progress towards egalitarianism, either because their inherent character makes it impossible, because of their positive desire for a hierarchical society, or because a multicultural society is necessarily anti-egalitarian due to the conflicts it engenders. There is no indication that “diversity” is any kind of strength or brings any advantage to anyone involved – rather the opposite. And there is no indication, despite good intentions (if perhaps prurient motivations), that liberalism can do anything to improve spiritual or physical conditions for anyone involved.
“My god, imagine living with these people” is the ethos of the film, as von Trier gestures vaguely west.