Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Critical U.S. racial history by a Danish director: “Manderlay”

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.


  1. I agree with Yusuf that it is troubling to depict victims of oppression as lacking individual agency to bring change. I’ve always believed that the unbalanced, victimization discourse that only emphasizes how structural oppressions (imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism,…) powerful they are, would only harm the victims, compelling them to deep states of frustration, isolation, feeling and acting as powerless, and fear of confronting the oppressor’s regimes.. Throughout history, agents; individuals/groups have challenged systems of hegemony and could in reality destabilize these systems. Focusing only on structures of oppression, I think, would deprive the victims from hope or motivation to engage in a positive self-redefinition that would pave the way for change. Oppressed communities need to be empowered with success stories and liberation ideology (whether it be theology or secularism) to resist and struggle. Emphasizing power of the oppressors without paying attention to educating the oppressed about their potential strength, would only perpetuate in their psych the dominant negative self-image that the system has always worked to establish; that the oppressed are worth nothing, powerless, and consequently should wait passively for change to come from above. Devoting part of the discourse to diffuse liberation and empowerment ideology among the underprivileged will certainly change their passive convictions to more emancipating and change-stimulus ones.

    In concluding their article about Anna Julia Cooper, Epstein, Khomassi, and Ben-Ali wrote, “Cooper's life extends to all of us the hope that we will all be able to navigate the terrain of discrimination and segregation, to become great despite its difficulty, and eventually to change its contours through our collective progress. (Epstein et al, on-line, accessed 06/20/2007)


  2. A blog.. hmmmm... racism... blacks... whites... women.... christians... budists.... racism is way more than color... I do understand the black thing.... but does anyone understand the woman thing??? We are the most racized group to ever exist... I am a woman trying to live in a man's world.... or men world... doesn't matter... Nothing negative matters... You make the best of your life and go on... I try... I do... I know the black/white. I lived through racial riots and didn't understand... still don't... never will... I guess that's my blog... Thank you for reading...