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Manderlay and the Other

In Film on 8 September, 2011 at 00:48

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Manderlay was released in 2005 by Danish auteur Lars Von Trier as the second part of his intended trilogy: USA –Land of Opportunity. Set in the 1930s, the film follows the story of Grace whom, as she flees the burning Dogville, happens upon an enclosed plantation called Manderlay in Alabama. As they pause outside it, a black woman emerges from the gates complaining that someone is about to be whipped for stealing a bottle of wine.  Grace then discovers that, 70 years after its banishment from the United States, slavery still exists in this isolated enclosure.  Grace feels that she has a moral obligation and even a sovereign right over what ‘she made them’ and seeks reparations for the slave community.

As Grace begins to dictate the terms of the arrangements and demand freedom for the slaves, she denies them any real input into the agreements being deliberated. This echoes Edward Said’s theory of the colonial experience, where the point of view of the ‘Other’ – the Other being the colonised – belonged to colonising white Europeans, as the Other was not validated to speak.

Throughout of the course of the film Grace perpetuates the constructed racial binary that dominant western societies detailed, harking back to the phrase that those who win write the course of history. Grace is, after ‘liberating’ the former slaves, able to write history as she so chooses. She offers a point of view to the black occupants of Manderlay but fails to give them any truly liberating input.  Grace expects that there will be a change of character within the slave community which only freedom can bring; this in itself is problematic in that the slaves don’t earn their own freedom at all, instead liberated by a white woman and her guns – the freedom that are experiencing is, then, a totally romanticised one.

In order to keep control and learn more about the plantation, Grace turns to the book called ‘Mam’s Law’. This is the book that set the rules of the plantation and maintain the slave tradition in Manderlay. Grace comes across a chapter, which features a grid of seven categories, which are also laid out on the courtyard in front of the house. Each one of the seven squares represents one of seven different stereotypes. Frantz Fannon wrote in his Black Skin/White Masks that the white man had ‘woven [him] out of a thousand details, anecdotes and stories.’

The slaves in Manderlay were expected to act like the grid of seven told them to behave

The grid within Mam’s Law similarly weaves different stories about the different ‘types’ of slave. Essentially, this process is taken to secure the colonialist against the colonised, and this book gave Mam and her family certain superiority over the slaves and thus legitimised their governance over them. Given that Mam – and later Grace – had this ‘knowledge’ about the former slaves, it gave her oppression and autocratic regime legitimacy. Fannon wrote about his desire to be accepted by the culture that had brought him up, and yet it would always be out of reach. He noted that ‘a man was expected to behave like a man, I was expected to behave like a black man.’ The slaves in Manderlay were expected to act like the grid of seven told them to behave.

Those who hold power are able to create the criteria for truth. Thus, they can create new truths to suit certain purposes. When reading descriptions of Africa today you may often see words such as poverty and corruption, and these portraits are taken as truth without question. And yet corruption and poverty at home is given a significantly different narrative. This is a means of exerting influence and the power of authority over the colonised or postcolonial states. Grace’s father is undoubtedly a vile, corrupt, thieving son of a bitch and yet despite his wretched past and unwavering villainy, Grace is never quite able to be completely hostile towards him, eventually running back to him.

The sex scene shared between Grace and Timothy in Manderlay is the culmination of a growing hatred for Grace, the handkerchief he places over her face is a process of depersonalisation. Timothy uses her in the same way that she had been using the slaves, for personal satisfaction. But unlike her father, she completely vilifies Timothy and he repeats for her the motto she had been carrying around, “you created us.” Grace then punishes him for reminding her and whips him back into slavery.

One of the causal forces in this blind institution is the stereotype itself. Homi Bhabha moves beyond simple criticism of stereotypes as negative/positive notions but as arbitrary ideas. The construction of Otherness is mutually implicated in the identity of the coloniser and this stems from a deep anxiety over his or her own identity in the face of the Other. The white man sees various similarities between the Other and him and so he emphasises and exaggerates the differences between them, he then dedicates a deal of focus on these differences.

Willem argues that he would rather live in a pseudo-slavery society than in a place where he was not wanted

The Other becomes a fantastical fetishist object, stylised and rendered in such a way that the colonisers own identity can no longer be threatened. This is a sign of ambivalence; there are similarities that must be kept at a distance. It is the force of this ambivalence that allows for the repetition of the stereotype, given the relentless tension between the two polarities. The force of ambivalence is like a perpetual machine that continues to rotate indefinitely.

Grace continuously infantilises the black community and even fetishizes Timothy, a product of the ambivalence machine that continues to spin. Once you have discovered the sameness of the Other you will have realised the threat that it brings and so the narcissist must recover. This is done by superimposition; by placing another image on top of the disturbing object you placate the disturbance and normalise the difference. However this short-term fix cannot sustain itself because the threat is of course still known and the compulsion to neutralise the sameness is born and repeated.

Grace portrays a suitably angelic white American girl who hasn’t a racist bone within her. However, by the end of the film she reveals herself to be that which had so honestly despised at the start. In complete contrary to her insistence on reparations and apologies she brutally whips Timothy, much to the pride of her watching father. A highly idealistic woman, she is frustrated by the failures she has encountered in her mission. Fannon wrote that it is entirely destabilising to not be you, but to be yourself on terms with that of the white person.

And this is the difficulty that Grace faces as she set up wide reforms (most were complete failures), democratic voting and school classes. These form some of the ideological state apparatus’ that the governing use to instil certain ideological values within society, it is coded and transmitted through teaching, language and other means.

It emerges at the end of the film that Willem – the older slave – played a major part in the creation of ‘Mam’s Law.’ He decided it would be simpler for him to perpetuate the status quo because the challenge of being accepted was a burden too large to bear. Willem argues that he would rather live in a pseudo-slavery society than in a place where he was not wanted. Von Trier is arguing with Manderlay that what he should really be doing is throwing off that white mask and fighting against the social and economic marginalisation of black people, changing the concept and representation of ‘blackness’ in American cinema and indeed America herself.

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