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The Burden of Good Intentions


Lars von Trier is the greatest film director you’ve probably never heard of.  Maybe that’s because he is Danish, or maybe because he doesn’t make movies for the mainstream.  Those movies are existential to the core, with a stream of surrealism meandering between the comedic and the absurd.  A-list actors beg for the experience of being in his movies.  I love his work!

The recent racial protests across our country reminded me of his 2005 movie, “Manderlay,” in which a gangster and his daughter stumble across an Alabama plantation in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression.  It is the last pocket of slavery in America.  The plantation owner is an elderly white woman who is dying.  The slaves were surprised to hear that slavery had been abolished.  When the father decides to continue on his journey, the daughter remains to help the former slaves.  She wants to help them adjust to the free-world.

At first, the former-slaves are frightened, as their world is suddenly changed.  They don’t know the rules of the free-world.  The daughter tries to help them navigate the many decisions, such as work, contracts, voting, shopping, etc.  The movie gives life to the old expression that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”  She learns that black people are no more homogeneous than white people.  They fight among themselves just like white people.  In her frustration, the daughter becomes more tyrannical and becomes more like the now-dead plantation owner.

The movie ridicules well-intentioned but naive liberal whites, who want to dictate what freedom must be.  Not content to simply get out of the way, naive whites become the new oppressors.    If blacks want to be like whites, let them.  If they want to find their own way, let them.

One minor complaint with this movie is that it doesn’t discuss the financial cost of their individual decisions.  However, my chief complaint is the lack of attention to positive things that white people can do.  LZ Granderson of the LA Times says it is not enough to be “non-racist”.  We must become “anti-racist.”  I confess to not knowing how to do that.

If I ever watch this movie again, I would like to watch it with a black person.

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