VENICE, Italy — The most buzzed-about film going into this year’s Venice Film Festival was Suburbicon, a dark satire exploring race relations in 1950s America by juxtaposing the plight of an innocent black family—William (Leith M. Burke) and Daisy Myers (Karimah Westbrook)—moving into a Levittown-like suburb with their blundering, sinful white neighbors, played by Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. That it was co-written and directed by George Clooney, who held his star-studded nuptials in Venice, only amplified the anticipation—and paparazzi.
During the film’s post-screening press conference, the dashing Clooney was pressed on a number of topics related to the film—including its timeliness, given that the local townsfolk in the movie form a racist mob outside the Myers’ home, one eerily reminiscent of the gang of white supremacists that recently invaded Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The genesis of the screenplay [came when] I was watching a lot of [Trump] speeches on the campaign trail about building fences and scapegoating minorities, and I started looking around at other times in our history when we’ve unfortunately fallen back into these things, and I found this story that happened in Levittown, Pennsylvania.”
Indeed, Clooney based Suburbicon on the real-life story of William and Daisy Myers, a black family who moved to Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, where they were terrorized by the locals for months. Bricks were thrown through their windows and a cross was burned on their lawn.
“When you talk about ‘Making America Great Again,’ America being great everyone assumed was the Eisenhower ‘50s, and it was great if you were a white, straight male, but other than that it probably wasn’t so great. It’s fun to lift up that curtain and look underneath that thin veneer and see some of the real problems that this country has yet to completely come to terms with.”
At one point during the presser, a foreign journalist asked Clooney if he’d like to run for president someday.
“Would I like to be the next president? Oh, that sounds like fun. Can I just say that I’d like anybody to be the next president of the United States. Right away, please,” cracked Clooney.
The Myers’ experience stands in sharp contrast to the aforementioned white family, who are able to get away with a string of crimes while the racist mob—and the police—are focusing all their attention on the virtuous black family next door.
“The idea of juxtaposing these two [families] was to say, you’re looking at the wrong direction and you’re blaming this African-American family for all your woes, and I think that some of us up here on the panel are able to speak to the idea of white men feeling that they’re losing their privilege and blaming it on minorities—and of course it has nothing to do with that,” said the Kentucky-born Clooney.
He added, “I grew up in the South in the ‘60s and ‘70s during the Civil Rights Movement, and we sort of at that time thought we were putting to bed a lot of issues—segregation was going away, and we thought that we were putting these issues to bed. Of course we weren’t, and we have these eruptions that blow up every few years, and we realized that we’ve still got a lot of work to do as far as our original sin of slavery and racism.”
While insisting that Suburbicon “isn’t a movie about Donald Trump,” since the script by Joel and Ethan Coen was first realized in the ‘80s and touched up by Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov a few years back, the actor-filmmaker did acknowledge how it feels particularly zeitgeisty given America’s current divide.
“It’s probably the angriest I’ve seen the country, and I lived through the Watergate period,” said Clooney. “There’s a dark cloud hanging over our country right now. I’m an optimist… I do believe in the youth, and I believe that we’re going to get through all of these things, and I think that the institutions of the U.S. government tend to work. We see them work with the press, and with the legislative and the judicial branches of government.”
The festering group of white townsfolk outside of the Myers’ home ultimately explodes, with several setting fire to their vehicle, breaking their windows, and even hanging a Confederate flag outside of their window—a powerful moment given the current Confederate flag debate in America, and the removal of statues commemorating Confederate soldiers and politicians.
“This is something that’s really festering right now in the United States, when you talk about the Confederate flag and the [removal of] Jefferson Davis monuments,” offered Clooney. “I grew up in Kentucky, and you know, they would come to my hometown and do Civil War reenactments, and they’d go to the townspeople and you got to pick if you got to be a Union or a Rebel soldier, and you want to be the Rebel, you know? It’s fun. But you really didn’t understand the history of the Confederate flag, and understand that that was a flag that was designed to be carried into battle against the United States of America in favor of slavery—and they lost.”
“Now, if you want to wear it on your T-shirt or if you want to hang it off your front lawn, have at it. Good luck with your neighbors. But to hang it on a public building where partially African-American taxpayers are paying for it, that cannot stand. And we have to come to terms with those things. That’s important.”
Suburbicon will be released in theaters nationwide on October 27, 2017.