MANDERLAY

The second in Lars von Trier's "America" trilogy, set in the late 1930s, this film continues to tell the story of Grace (now played by the sublime Bryce Dallas Howard instead of Nicole Kidman), who is traveling by car across the South with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe). She gets sidetracked at the Manderlay plantation, witnesses the whipping of a young black man, and decides to stay to right wrongs and emancipate the slaves from their despotic owner (Lauren Bacall). But her altruism and good intentions blow up in her face. Dogville, the first in the "America" series, was inventively staged and had a great story to propel it, but here von Trier dips his feet into the muddy waters of race and slavery in a country he's never set foot in, and frankly, he's out of his depth. He calls this an "ambiguous moral comedy," but his observations are simplistic, cartoonish and facile. How is one supposed to react at the end when he flashes photos of Klansmen and lynchings, accompanied by David Bowie's "Young Americans"? Compared to this, Mandingo seems more fair-minded.

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