Gangster’s daughter Grace Margaret Mulligan (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) blunders into yet another corrupt enclosed society in Manderlay, the second film in Lars von Trier’s “America” trilogy (after 2004′s Dogville). Once again, the town is mapped out in chalk outlines, as if von Trier were visiting the scene of a crime. As, in a sense, he is. Von Trier has always been fascinated with the mechanics of oppression and subservience, and in his “America” films he uses the supposed bastion of freedom to observe the hypocrisies of that freedom. If you’re a woman (in Dogville) and, here, if you’re black, freedom doesn’t mean what it means to other people. Taking its cue from the above-quoted Jean Paulhan essay, Manderlay gets into a contradiction — the freedom of oppression.
Passing by the plantation of Manderlay with her mobster dad (Willem Dafoe, in for James Caan), Grace sees a black man about to be whipped for some offense. Appalled, Grace stops the whipping and gives the white townsfolk a piece of her mind: Don’t they know slavery was abolished seventy years ago? Grace decides to stay behind for a while and bring freedom to the black slaves of Manderlay. Her cynical father leaves Grace a cadre of his armed men to enforce her will, then takes off in his sleek black limo. The first order of business is to turn the social tables, turning the whites into manual laborers and giving the blacks a choice to leave Manderlay or stay behind and rebuild their community. Having just been enslaved back in Dogville, Grace empathizes with the blacks in a way that goes beyond simple liberal dilettantism. Her actions in Manderlay — and her mistakes — emerge directly from the lessons she learned in the previous film, though this time she doesn’t go so far as to bring fiery apocalypse onto the town. Instead, the apocalypse is slower, more spiritual.
It’s tempting, and probably unavoidable, to draw parallels between Grace’s mission in Manderlay and America’s belated justification for war in Iraq: to get rid of oppression and restore liberty to the people. Von Trier wrote the script before we entered Iraq, though; his aim is more universal, to illustrate the arrogance of even benevolent power. To what extent is Grace simply working out her aggressions — avenging herself on the same kinds of intolerant hicks who put her in chains? Bryce Dallas Howard, taking over the role from Nicole Kidman, makes Grace a nice, naïve girl on the surface, but one who can turn on a dime into coldness and ruthlessness. Grace has entered a world that, despite her brief experience with slavery, she cannot truly understand. Her attempts to bring “democracy” to Manderlay usually result in disaster. Nothing goes as planned. Cutting down the trees in the garden of the old deceased Mam (Lauren Bacall) for wood to repair the leaky roofs seems like a fine idea but instead invites the caprice of nature. Manderlay is about the folly of control.
As compared to the townspeople of Dogville (with its more generous running time), the black folk of Manderlay are less distinct than one might like, the white folk even less so. Several cast members from Dogville (Bacall, Jeremy Davies, Chloë Sevigny, Zeljko Ivanek, Udo Kier) return as different characters, and John Hurt reprises his duty as the Godlike narrator. The only constant between the two films, aside from Grace’s character, is Hurt’s voice — the movies have the tone of repertory theater, with familiar faces and a recast lead actress. Danny Glover brings his rumbling gravitas to the elder Wilhelm; Isaach De Bankolé is challenging and abrasive as the African transplant Timothy, who recognizes that Grace’s well-meant dictatorship is not so different from Mam’s. Both men have secrets that emerge, rather theatrically, in the final reel, exploding Grace’s assumptions about Manderlay. Grace will not leave this town without blood on her hands, either.
Lacking Dogville‘s hushed aura of perversity (aside from a late-inning sex scene that must have made Ron Howard — the lead actress’ father — wince and avert his eyes), Manderlay comes across as more of a position paper than a dramatization. If this trilogy finishes up strong, this middle portion may come to be seen as the weakest, though it’s still forceful and intimate in the von Trier manner, and it will spark hot discussions that will likely have little to do with the film’s actual message. Von Trier plays with slavery to get at deeper truths about human nature; for him, exerting one’s will over others is the dominant mode of human interaction, and he’s less interested in the process than in the psyche of the enslaved. Having explored that at length in two films, von Trier may have said all he has to say on the subject. Manderlay asks, What do you do after slavery? Von Trier’s fans may well ask him, What do you do after Manderlay?