Love him or hate him, American-baiting Danish gadfly Lars von Trier is back with a follow-up to the superb DOGVILLE (2003), a film he always threatened was just the first in a projected "USA: Land of Opportunities" trilogy. But without the benefit of a repeat performance from Nicole Kidman as Grace, the fugitive gangster's daughter who found momentary sanctuary among the cruel denizens of Dogville, the film's conceits grow thin and von Trier's mocking, hectoring tone tiresome. The production is once again stage-bound, spare and Brechtian — actors pantomime on a virtually empty soundstage with only painted outlines on the floor to indicate where the scenery would be — and John Hurt is back as the sublimely ironic narrator. Having reduced Dogville to ashes in an act of judgment worthy of the Old Testament, Grace (now played by the less experienced Bryce Dallas Howard), her father (Willem Dafoe) and his gangster entourage venture deep into Dust Bowl-era Alabama in search of "new hunting grounds." The motorcade pulls up in front of the Manderlay cotton plantation just as a black worker is to be whipped for pilfering a bottle of wine. Grace is horrified to learn that the lives of Manderlay's former slaves haven't changed much since slavery was abolished 70 years earlier, and decides that it is high time something is done. After demanding the worker's release, Grace confronts the Manderlay's ailing matriarch, Mam (Lauren Bacall), who dies immediately after. Grace is convinced that, as a member of the oppressive white race, it's now her moral duty to bring freedom to the old plantation, and after persuading her father to leave her behind with a few thugs for backup, she occupies Manderlay. Grace's first step is to draw up new contracts deeding the workers a portion of the property while forcing the surviving members of Mam's family to work as unpaid laborers. Grace next installs a one-voice/one-vote democratic system through which the workers themselves will decide on everything, from who owns an old broken rake to what time of day it is. But William (Danny Glover), the house servant, fears these newly liberated folks aren't ready for all this democracy, especially when it comes in the shape of an idealistic young white woman who knows next to nothing about either growing cotton or human nature — something Grace is about to learn in the cruelest way imaginable. A group of formerly enslaved people who have democracy foisted upon them by a heavily armed liberator/invader is a neat metaphor for "Operation Iraqi Freedom," and the point that after generations of brutal subjugation, the oppressed may actually come to embrace their oppression in a kind of societal Stockholm syndrome is well taken. But slavery in the American South deserves to be treated as far more than a mere metaphor, and von Trier recklessly mucks about with a serious historical reality that still carries painful and important contemporary resonances. To in any way suggest that the Depression-era children and grandchildren of African-American slaves — the same men and women who fought and died for their basic civil rights — were not only content to remain in bondage but somehow became the authors of their own enslavement is far beyond the pale, even by von Trier's ordinarily controversial standards.
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