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Film / Manderlay

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"Liberation. Whether They Want It Or Not".

Manderlay is a minimalist drama directed by Lars von Trier, following on from Dogville (the first in an ongoing trilogy that may never be finished). Many of the same roles are reprised from Dogville, though with a few exceptions, the entire cast has changed.

As with the previous film, Manderlay follows the exploits of Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is now fleeing across 1930s America with her father (Willem Dafoe) and his band of gangsters. As they stop to take rest, Grace discovers the Manderlay plantation, which still relies on slave labour. Grace takes it upon herself to out the plantation owners and free the slaves. Following a warning from her cynical father, she decides it would be safer to stay (along with a retinue of hoods) and assist with the transition from slave camp to free enterprise. Like in Dogville, little goes to plan for the idealistic, headstrong Grace, or her fledgling democracy.


As with its predecessor, the film is notable for its limited (or invisible) props, taking place on a sound stage that is marked out with painted lines, like a giant blueprint. The design leads to a stage play feel and intensity, but can be initially difficult to get into.

This film provides examples of:

  • Bookends: The film begins and ends with Timothy the slave being whipped.
  • Break the Cutie: Grace, again.
  • Card Sharp: A professional gambler who's occupation is to cheat former slaves out of their savings, thus ensuring they remain perpetually indebted to their employers.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Mam's demand to burn the Mam's law guidebook. Specific advice within the guidebook about the slaves. Timothy's white hanky. The window with a handle on the outside. Everything Grace's father says. The relative lack of literal guns owned by the former Manderlay bosses.
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  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Grace's attempts to deal with her sexual frustrations.
  • Deep South: Manderlay is located somewhere in Alabama.
  • Democracy Is Flawed: The subject of the film. The democracy presented is absolute and without limitations, giving the slaves ultimate power to determine what time it is, whether they shall execute transgressors, and finally whether they can vote to end democracy.
  • Determinator: Grace is particularly stubborn. Timothy refuses to give up in the face of obvious defeat, riding against the dirt storms that ravage the cotton crop.
  • Erotic Dream: Grace is susceptible to these.
  • Everyone Is Armed: All the gangsters are packing. This is what enables them to initially force democracy onto Manderlay.
  • Freedom from Choice: Manderlay's freed slaves finally decide they prefer not being free.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Grace's efforts to introduce democracy. Which is ultimately applied by the slaves to vote on ending their democratic powers.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: Mam's Law, a guidebook that contains every rule and piece of advice on subjugating the slaves.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Not exactly happiness, but perpetual slavery is the more stable and comfortable lesser of two evils, according to Wilhelm.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Grace.
  • The Trickster: The "Type VII" slaves, who transform into whatever is most appealing to the beholder.
  • Indentured Servitude: The former plantation owners are obligated to work as slaves for the freed slaves, until they have sufficiently learnt the error of their ways.
  • Ironic Echo: "We made you this way." Also, Grace's claim that things are going very well at Manderlay end up being horrendously misinterpreted by her father. Also, Grace's father's claim that everyone tends towards harem sex fantasies.
  • Loan Shark: Grace's father warns that inevitably the homesteaders will become these, using endless debts to entrap the newly freed slaves into servitude.
  • The Mafia: Grace's goons, on loan from her father.
  • Mafia Princess: Grace.
  • Magical Negro: Grace makes the critical mistake of treating both Wilhelm and Timothy as these. It turns out the former literally wrote the book on subjugating black people, and the latter is a cheat and a thief who merely puts on the front of being a proud, wise man.
  • Mighty Whitey: Played with. Grace looks like an archetypal one, in her singlehanded efforts to free and nurture the slaves. She becomes their literal superior, when the slaves decide they want to be subjugated, and elect her the new "Mam" of the house by virtue of her being the only white person left in Manderlay. That said the slaves admit they were perfectly capable of emancipating themselves whenever they wanted, they just didn't want to.
  • Never My Fault: One of the supposed benefits of Mam's laws is that the slaves can take solace in perpetually blaming their cruel white masters for anything that goes wrong, and never take responsibility for any of their own mistakes.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: A lot of Grace's schemes to improve life at Manderlay backfire.
  • Noble Savage: Grace perceives Timothy as one of these. He is only pretending to be one.
  • Plot Twist: Quite a few, quickly following on from one to another. First, it is revealed that Timothy is the one who stole the plantation money, not the gangsters. Next is that this shows Timothy to be a charlatan who Grace has been mistaking for a proud, heroic slave. Thirdly, that Mam's law was a creation of the black slaves, and not the white plantation owners. The slaves could have easily escaped any time without Grace's help, but felt it was better not to. The final twist is that Manderlay's only clock was set to the incorrect time, ensuring Grace missed her one chance to escape with her father.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: No one is allowed to leave Manderlay, either under slave rule or under Grace's new society. The latter eventually permits the gangsters to leave, and Grace eventually chooses to leave too. Until it is revealed the slaves voted that she must stay, forcing her to become their new slaver boss.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: The film's subject: slavery is presented as terrible, not just because of its immediate oppression and exploitation, but because of the self-perpetuating institution it creates. The film ends with a slideshow of the suffering of post-emancipation black Americans, with some images dating as recently as the 90s and 00s.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The ending credits puts upbeat, plucky music against a slideshow of real life racist imagery and downtrodden black Americans.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Grace's father describes being chased by a torch wielding mob as everyone's lurid fantasy. Grace ends up being chased by one.
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: The gambler's job is to ensure no slave manages to save sufficient money to buy their freedom, cheating them out of their savings at cards.
  • Truth in Television: The premise that plantations relying slave labor even long after Emancipation Proclamation with enslaved people not knowing they were free actually happened in real life, as it turns out.
  • Ultimate Job Security: The lawyer, who has a unique talent for making legal documents that can be interpreted in one way only. He is very much treasured by Grace and Grace's father.
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: One of the slave types are defined by their need to crack jokes.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator parrots what certain characters (particularly Grace) think is going on, rather than what is actually going on.
  • Unwanted Rescue: No one at Manderlay wanted to be rescued by Grace. The final act of Manderlay's commune is to revert the plantation back to slavery.
  • White Man's Burden: Deconstruted. Grace immediately sees it as her responsibility to free, educate, and protect the fledgling community of freed slaves. They initially seem incapable of making basic decisions or even looking after themselves without constant supervision, without their former masters, or Grace. It backfires when the Manderlay citizens decide they want a slaver, not a teacher.
  • Work Off the Debt: Had Grace not stepped in to take charge, the slaves would have almost certainly entered into exploitative employment with their former masters, who lend money to the slaves (to spend in a new on site store.)
  • Wrote the Book: Mam's Law, the literal book of slavery. Though surprisingly, Wilhelm is the one who states he wrote the book, not the Mam.