By Yusuf Sarfati, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute
Last Friday I watched with some friends “Manderlay”, a movie written and directed by the controversial Danish director Lars von Tier. The movie tries to tackle many intriguing questions around the issue of race, by telling the story of a plantation in Alabama in 1933, where slavery is still practiced despite the fact that the institution had been abolished 70 years ago.
Grace, the naïve, White, idealistic American, who is the daughter of a powerful gangster arrives to the plantation, where “slaves” are ruled by Mam’s Law that uses subtle psychological mechanisms to coerce the black residents of the plantation to be subservient in every aspect of life. Full with idealism and power (thanks to his father’s gangsters), she abolishes slavery and Mam’s Law. Next she tries to liberate the minds and the behavior of the slaves in that plantation by creating a democratically self-governed commune. In the movie there are a plethora of social and racial issues. The imposition of democratic rule from the top; the flaws and possible coercion of conceiving majority rule as democratic practice; sexualization of Black male body in the character of Timothy (played by Isaach De Bankolé); victims’ internalization of the oppressors’ worldview are some of the themes that you encounter in the movie.
Yet to me, the message conveyed in the final moments of “Manderlay” was the most mind-boggling statement. At the end of the story, it appears that the ex-slaves choose (by unanimous vote) to live in slavery (under Grace’s mastership in this case) rather than going out to the “free” U.S (outside the plantation), since the life “out there” is much more discriminatory and restrictive.
On the one hand this statement is positive, since the movie acknowledges (at least in the photo slide show at the end) that the era in U.S. history after the Reconstruction (1876-1950) was full of discriminatory practices like the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, the reemergence of Black codes, the creation of sundown towns, the segregation of all public facilities, and the use of intimidation, coercion and lynching against Blacks. Hence this statement debunks the linear progressive reading of U.S history on racial relations that is usually told in the mainstream books. So, it is possible that the writer/director wants to underscore this fact and therefore made the ex-slaves choose “slavery” over this discriminatory, coercive, humiliating reality. He might want to tell us that life after Reconstruction was so awful for U.S. Blacks that it might be compared to (even might be worst than) slavery.
On the other hand, there is still something very troubling about this pessimistic statement. I think it depicts the Black residents of Manderlay devoid of any individual agency to bring social or political change. Obviously we know that this has been historically not correct, at least not so in the U.S. Even in the most oppressive situations, there has been resistance or efforts for change among the victims of oppression. For instance, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States of America” documents very cogently the resistance that Blacks, indentured servants, Indians, and poor people have showed against acts of oppression since 16th century.
Anyway, no matter what you will think about the movie, I am sure Manderlay will provoke a lot of questions.