George Clooney stirs up a hornet’s nest of racial animus for no good reason
Photo: Matt Damon (left) with Noah Jupe (right) in George Clooney’s ‘Suburbicon’
By T.T. Stern Enzi
Lexington, Kentucky native and multi-hyphenate, George Clooney, (Academy Award-nominated writer and director of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and Best Supporting Actor winner for “Syriana”, as well as being a producer of “Argo,” which won Best Picture) not only has impeccable Hollywood pedigree, but he’s also known for his outspoken stances on liberal-to-progressive political issues. The man is the current epitome of the industry’s elite cultural movers and shakers.
Which is what makes his latest filmmaking effort, “Suburbicon,” such a head-scratcher. The film takes a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen back in the 1980s, about home invasion in a seemingly idyllic suburban enclave from the 1950s with Everyman Matt Damon as the hardworking patriarch of a family under siege, and subverts the spot-on darkly, pulpy sensibilities of the Coens by incorporating a completely incongruent element of social commentary, which would have been better left out.
You see, Gardner (Damon) is in the mold of William H. Macy’s character in “Fargo,” a duplicitous man who makes bad decisions and complicates matters further by partnering with inept violent stooges. In his case, Gardner’s trapped in a bland, loveless marriage, but secretly longs for her sister (both women are played by Julianne Moore) and he schemes with a crew of low-level criminals to stage a break-in, shake up the dynamic, and open the door for the changes he desires, while keeping his young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), safe. Of course, the plan goes sideways, forcing Gardner to scramble and react on the fly, with bloody results.
Narrative problems arise when Clooney and long-time screenwriting & producing partner, Grant Heslov, add in a racial element, inspired by a true situation, to the mix. Seeking to contrast the ironic notion of the tranquility found in heterogeneous communities, the pair shoehorns in the arrival of a black family, the Meyers (headed by Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook), an upstanding couple with a young son (Tony Espinosa) forced to play by himself in the backyard, so as to remain free from the taunts and escalating threats of physical violence from the neighbors.
On paper, the contrast reads like a cunning juxtaposition; the kind of reaction a man like Clooney would have to the wave of resentment that bum-rushed the 2016 Presidential election, and has hijacked the national conversation ever since (culminating with the rise of white nationalism embodied by the events in Charlottesville this summer). The Meyers, both in the film and apparently in real life, were typical Civil Rights-era, non-violent players on the front line, ready to stoically turn the other cheek when under vicious assault by unsavory white folks who believed that the arrival of these Others would signal the end of all they held sacred.
“Suburbicon” shows that the seeds of evil and moral decay were already sown in the community, both in Gardner’s scheming and the racist tendencies lurking beneath the thin surface layer of civility in the lily-white enclave. As an African-American critic, it was difficult to watch Clooney attempt to weave these disparate strands together because we live in a new day and a new age where black folks are no longer content to sit back quietly and take a beating to prove their moral superiority and righteousness. I found myself wondering if Clooney and Heslov have been paying attention to the Black Lives Matter Movement or the Colin Kaepernick protest that has swelled and taken on a life of its own in the NFL?
In a similar way, it reminded me of the recent failure of Katherine Bigelow’s film “Detroit,” which suffered from a misguided approach to race—placing black victims at the forefront, while obscuring or protecting white perpetrators of horrific crimes. The aim here is not to argue that white filmmakers shouldn’t tackle these subjects, but they need to be mindful of how to more accurately portray the historic elements, while attempting to speak to our current realities.
“Suburbicon” might have fared better without inserting this element in the first place, which it seems the marketing and promotions team behind the scenes has figured out. The television spots and trailers have made no effort to even highlight the racial issues in their campaign. Unfortunately, that means audiences will enter theaters and be shocked and likely quite uncomfortable with this tacked-on storyline. Clooney and Heslov just might have choked what little life their film had right out before it could enjoy the light of day at the box office.
Rating: R; Grade: D