You just have to love it when progressive white folks tackle complex periods in American history. Like George Clooney’s take on Suburbicon, an old Coen brothers script from the mid-to-late 1980s about a family (headed by American Everyman Matt Damon playing a man named Gardner) in an idyllic suburban community dealing noirish drama, while the neighborhood engages in a heated stand-off against a black family that has dared to move into the enclave. The setting is Suburbicon, the neighborhood of the future, dreaming of being open and all-American, welcoming and kind to everyone – that looks like every other white person. Blacks, we hear time and again, have to prove themselves capable of living among the upstanding regular folks.
What’s tough to swallow though is how we’re supposed to appreciate the irony that the Meyers (the black family) are hardworking, quiet folks who do the right thing, seeking to live normal lives, while there’s so much dirt going on behind the scenes with everyone else. Not just Gardner’s clan, but the actual scary Klan-like white folks on constant vigil outside the home of the Meyers’. No one wants to be that close to them – forcing the community council to erect fences around their home and property – but soon, everyone seems quite happy camping out on the sidewalks and the street, hovering, beating drums, making a racket at all hours of the day and night, just the sort of thing they believe black folks do, which drives down property values.
What’s worse is how little voice the Meyers are given during the course of the narrative. A conservative guess would render a count of no more than 12 lines of dialogue for the entire family, most of which is spoken by the young Meyers son (Tony Espinosa) to Gardner’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe). We see how silent and righteous they are in the face of the anger and oppression. They turn the other cheek quite well, as their white neighbors begin to break their windows, drape Confederate flags around their property and firebomb their car.
I wonder if white audiences who will watch Suburbicon will experience any faint queasiness over the dynamic. Will this remind them of Charlottesville and the general air of white supremacy that’s dominating the social and cultural fabric?
The more troubling notion, for me, is how we can live in the same country and there are people, liberal-minded folks who have no idea these things have happened in the past, or that some version of these situations continue to play out in our world today. In the September 6th Toronto International Film Festival edition of The Hollywood Reporter, the cover story is devoted to the film and an exclusive interview with Clooney with select quotes from the principle cast.
The black family thread, apparently, did not exist in the initial draft of the script by the Coens. Clooney and screenwriting partner Grant Heslov added the racial element, based on a real-life incident that took place in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, to a black family (the Myers) attempting to move into a similar community. Clooney wanted to show that such racist reactions were not strictly a Southern issue, but it is curious how Damon expressed surprise that anything like this had ever taken place. “I was floored,” he said. “It’s that incredible thing where people are like: ‘Well, we’re not racist; we just don’t want them to live here.'”
Of course, you quickly fast-forward from the 1950s to the present racial dramas with police shootings, the rapid rise and response of Black Lives Matter, the Trump election strategy (catering to white fears of a host of “Others”), and the recent events in Charlottesville, and it is difficult to read Julianne Moore’s comments about how “absolutely shocking” everything has been, as if each of these situations were somehow completely isolated and without root causes.
I don’t mean to take Clooney or any members of the cast to task too much here. I would rather shift the focus where film should always go, back to the audiences. We watch these narratives, and see the same perspectives, which we refuse to challenge in significant ways. We never question why it was so necessary for Clooney to offer up a historically accurate portrayal of quiet black sainthood in a purely fictional story. If you are going to inject this racial angle into the mix, why not grant the family more complexity, instead of the one-note from the high-road?
Better still, why not set aside the Coen dark comedy entirely and dig into the story of the Myers themselves? Bring them to the forefront, rather than having them serve as a metaphor. Do we really need another mute magical metaphor?
I would argue that we don’t, especially now, because if that’s all we ever get on the screen, then it comes as a real shock when black folks flip the script in the real world. Things get confusing when the reaction to the abject terror and horrors of systemic dangers is anything other than non-violent silence.