THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
What George Clooney’s ‘Suburbicon’ Gets Wrong About Race Relations in America
The actor-filmmaker’s new 1950s-set satire ‘Suburbicon’ fails to adequately expose America’s ‘original sin.’
If you’d only seen the trailers for George Clooney’s latest film Suburbicon, you’d be forgiven for not knowing there are black people in the film. The movie’s entire marketing campaign has highlighted Matt Damon’s character, Gardner Lodge—a middle-class suburbanite who gets mixed up with the mob. After that, the plot devolves into a flurry of comedic and noirish flourishes that screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen are known for (the film’s original draft was an unproduced script of theirs that Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov dusted off). But lo and behold, there is an entirely different secondary plot that consumes Suburbicon—a black family, the Mayers’, moving into the lily-white town of Suburbicon, which drives their closed-minded white neighbors crazy.
It’s understandable that Clooney would choose now to confront the racism embedded in America. He’s been vocal about Donald Trump and what he calls our country’s “original sin.” He was vocal last year about the lack of diversity at the Oscars. So the stage was set for Clooney to deliver his own meditation on American race relations.
Speaking to The Daily Beast, Clooney addressed what he found lacking in previous films that addressed racism in these United States: “Having grown up in Kentucky, when I see movies depicting any type of racism it always sounds like Mississippi Burning—hick accents and all. And when I was looking at the crisis of Levittown, these people sounded like they’d come from the East Coast and they were still hanging Confederate flags on houses and saying all these racist things. It’s good to remember that it wasn’t just the South that was fucked up. It played out everywhere.”
As well-intentioned as his words are, they also exemplify why Clooney’s attempt to tackle racism was handled about as well as Lennie Small attempting to pet a puppy in Of Mice and Men.
Setting the film in 1950s suburbia was the first error. Ever since Rod Serling used to introduce us to neighborhoods like Maple Street on The Twilight Zone, American pop culture has peeled back the insidious nature of small-town America. More recently, Get Out managed to skewer the idea of well-intentioned white liberals and how their progressive attitudes can mask underlying racist intentions. Which is to say, this isn’t new and the idea that so-called liberals can also be racist is laughable at this point—particularly when many of those “well-intentioned” white people had to have voted Trump into office, despite his campaign sowing racial discord. Furthermore, any historical study of suburbs in America reveal that they were the result of white flight—families leaving cities to avoid having to live near minorities. If the very idea of Suburbicon in and of itself is racist, then it requires more than a surface-level “these people can be racist too” examination of their attitudes toward the Mayers’.
It betrays the audience for a film like Suburbicon, who can still use the film’s historical setting and near-comical levels of nuance-free vitriol directed at Suburbicon’s first black family as a reason to distance themselves from their own racism—because the audience for Suburbicon seems to not merely be the well-intentioned liberal, but the sheltered liberal who’s completely ignorant of the interior lives of black Americans.
Despite his own good intentions, Clooney has proven time and again that racism isn’t something he truly understands, and something that he hasn’t gone the extra mile to educate himself on.
During the aforementioned Oscar season last year, he commented on the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and championed diversity in a statement to Variety: “If you think back 10 years ago, the Academy was doing a better job. Think about how many more African Americans were nominated. I would also make the argument, I don’t think it’s a problem of who you’re picking as much as it is: How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films? But honestly, there should be more opportunity than that. There should be 20 or 30 or 40 films of the quality that people would consider for the Oscars. By the way, we’re talking about African Americans. For Hispanics, it’s even worse. We need to get better at this. We used to be better at it.”
If Clooney fails to see the irony in this statement in the wake of Suburbicon’s release, allow me to point out what is searingly obvious. When he made this statement, Kara Brown at Jezebel pointed out that Clooney does not star in, produce, or direct diverse films. If Suburbicon was an attempt to rectify the lack of opportunities for black people in films, it seems odd to shoehorn the Mayers’ storyline in as a subplot—and a subplot that is severely lacking in screen time for any of the black characters. Suburbicon is filled to the brim with stars, but Clooney went with relatively unknown actors for the Mayers family (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Tony Espinosa) and then neglected to give any of them material that could elevate them beyond Hollywood’s periphery. Westbrook has one scene in particular where she’s forced out of a grocery store while attempting to buy milk, but she merely maintains a stiff upper lip and strides out of the store without letting her neighbors see her shame, anger or sadness.
Clooney’s depiction of racism is one that often plagues many well-meaning white screenwriters. The minorities must be paragons of virtue so that we know their white counterparts are vile. If Mrs. Mayer smoked a cigarette or had a drink or was having an extramarital affair, would she still not deserve respect from her neighbors? Instead, we see a black family terrorized as they stoically cling to an American dream that they were never promised and one that is never going to be handed over to them by nice-looking white people. There’s been an influx of films like this, including Kathryn Bigelow’s well-intentioned Detroit, that eventually turn into torture porn—with white audiences meant to feel better by watching black characters preyed upon by racists. The monsters have shifted from the days of D.W. Griffith, but the intention is still the same: cosset white audiences at any cost.
By relegating the Mayers to the background and devoting the least amount of screentime possible to them, Clooney has done a disservice to black actors and unwittingly continues the trend of denying minorities opportunities in “quality films.” Not that Suburbicon itself is particularly quality. The main plot plays out like a paint-by-numbers Double Indemnity knockoff with a few shades of Vertigo that never go anywhere beyond a wink.
There were many reasons the Coens probably never produced this script. For one, The Ladykillers has shown that as brilliant as they are, they’re abysmal at writing for black characters, and second being that none of the characters in Suburbicon are elevated to even the level that secondary characters in films like Raising Arizona or Burn After Reading manage. It’s simply a paltry script that offers a look at suburbia than we’ve seen before, a take on noir that’s unseasoned, and an attempt at critiquing race relations that extends no further than an apologetic, “I’d have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.”