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Lars von Trier asked me to have a critique of his manuscript for his movie Manderlay from an black American perspective.
I asked Sandra to give her view.



To:                                      Jacob Holdt

From:                                  Sandra Ruffin

Date:                                   March 3, 2004

Re:                                      Notes on Manderlay


General Reaction After Second Read  –


 At its core Manderlay reveals the “mad,” the “mutated,” the “unnatural” self that inevitably results from the imposition of a system of oppression.  (Note that some mutation of self occurs from the establishment of any system because empowering the system requires relinquishing some personal sovereignty.)  The film successfully portrays the following: (1) that all agents, actors, participants in the system of oppression are inescapably and necessarily affected/infected and maybe even trapped by it (Grace); (2) that the closer one is in relationship to the purest expression of the oppression the deeper the madness or the mutation (Mam and Wilhelm); and (3) the madness is not viewed as abnormal psychosis because everything the system produces to sustain itself is subnormal (oppression being an unnatural state of existence), if normal or natural is, at least, arguably or theoretically, equivalent to personal autonomy (hence, Mam’s Law). 


 As strongly suggested in the film, spiritual survival and thus actual survival of the slave in this relationship is supported and sustained by the fact that the slave’s participation is arguably involuntary—thus Timothy notes that so long as the blacks were slaves there was no need for “Thank You.”  However, Manderlay encroaches on this spiritual safety net by re-presenting the slave’s participation as voluntary, volitional and autonomous.  And, of course, given that scenario, there can be no No.1s; there can be no “proudy niggers.”  (Willie Lynch Lives!!!)  There can only be No. 7s, “niggers” pretending to be proud. And lawdy, lawdy, lawdy—dem 1s and dem 7s sho’ be hard ta tell apart.



 (1) Well, to state it succinctly, to get to this level of mutation takes lots of permutations and too much of that process is missing in the characters as currently portrayed—most of the significant characters, perhaps to a lesser degree with Grace and Wilhelm, are too one-dimensional; all we see is “Sambo”-- the end product.  There is power in displaying Sambo if the struggle or cooperation between “authentic self” and “Sambo” can be EFFECTIVELY portrayed. 

 (2) Images of Black Women

 Recommendation:  Create multidimensional characters and relieve the plot of  burdensome narration by replacing substantial narration with internal dialogue for particular characters and creating internal dialogue for other characters.


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