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January 2005


By Kam Williams



Distributor: IFC Films
Director: Lars von Trier
Producer: Vibeke Windelov
Screenwriter: Lars Von Trier
Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach de Bankole, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Michael Abiteboul, Lauren Bacall, John Hurt, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, Chloe Sevigny





It is 1933, and a caravan of mobsters from Chicago happens by accident upon a secluded estate in Alabama by the name of Manderlay. Rather than finding a relic of the ante-bellum South, the gangsters make the disturbing discovery that this is a plantation where slavery never ended, in spite of its abolition by the Emancipation Proclamation some 70 years earlier.

This is the provocative point of departure of Manderlay, a moving melodrama with talented cast topped by Danny Glover, Oscar-nominees Lauren Bacall (for The Mirror Has Two Faces), Willem Dafoe (for Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire), John Hurt (for The Elephant Man and Midnight Express) and Chloe Sevigny (for Boys Don't Cry). Still, the real star of the movie is Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Ron "Opie" Howard, in her capacity as Grace, the conflicted daughter of a Mafia don.

For although her father has a hands-off attitude, since he sees the ongoing slavery as simply "a local matter" to be ignored, the young girl summons up the gumption to do something about it anyway. She states that, "We whites have committed an irreparable crime against an entire people," and concludes that "We have a moral obligation" to undo it.

Grace thus serves as the story's social conscience, a cleansing force intent on confronting this country's defining divide. In this capacity, she challenges the residents of Manderlay to reassess their ingrained beliefs about the indelibility of the color line. So, she exhorts whites to abandon their ingrained arrogance, while imploring blacks to shed their equally deep-seated sense of low-self esteem.

Though ostensibly about events occurring at a mythical mansion in the Thirties, Manderlay is, nonetheless, a relevant commentary on modern-day America. It should come as no surprise that such an incendiary brain teaser could only have been made by a foreigner. For it was written and directed by Danish director Lars von Trier, himself an Oscar-nominee best known for Breaking the Waves.

Manderlay is technically a sequel to the similarly sparse Dogville, yet, the film eloquently explores its own separate set of ethical issues. Shot on a shoestring budget in Sweden, this minimalist theatrical-style production rises far above its modest means. Relying on a daring script as executed by A-list actors, it offers a potentially transformational experience for any inclined to contemplate an introspective, gut-wrenching meditation on the intractability of the legacy of slavery.