I had never heard of Suburbicon prior to being invited to attend a pre-screening event. As a black woman interested in explicating blackness, seeing the movie was initially of little interest to me. But as a plus-one, the endeavor became a low stakes opportunity to meta a white film targeting an audience of white liberals.
The irony in the phrase white liberal is seemingly not entirely lost on director and writer George Clooney, who uses Suburbicon to assert his own white liberalism. Suburbican-set in a suburban town, depict what many Americans would consider a utopia. The lawns are perfectly manicured and the white families are as firmly planted in their fictive superiority as their prime real estate is in stolen American soil. This utopia setting becomes a state for dystopia—the film succeeding in depicting the drastic lengths whites will go through to satiate greed and maintain an image of pseudo perfection.
In a little under two hours, Clooney contemplates what it means to be white. A query the film seemingly answers in a disturbing portrayal of greed, sex, and a ruthless exercise of white privilege from multiple angles. This privilege is not simply skipping lines or obtaining a high-paying job with sub-par credentials, but far more grim.
In short, white middle-class suburban dad and husband Gardner (Matt Damon) hires other white men of lower social stature to murder his handicap wife so that he can pursue a romantic relationship with her sister. Rose (Gardner’s wife) and Margaret (Rose’s sister), are both played by actress Julianne Moore, a duplicity that while many things is not accidental. The dual role suggests an interchangeability between white women. Given Margaret’s murderous rage when she learns she will not obtain the funds to start her new life, the film implies that if placed in a similar position, a deceased Rose would behave like her sister—or possibly did so to secure her temperate place in Suburb-icon.
Suburbicon’s characters are allegorical and represent a specific facet of white privilege. Gardner (Matt Damon) exercises his privilege in inducing white female interchangeability and access to capital. Margaret (Julianne Moore) seeks to exercise the privilege of white female beauty and white female supremacy in aiding her employer torment her black female neighbor in a local supermarket. The insurance man, who easily uncovers Gardner and Margaret’s evil plan, does not seek to extinguish their cruel intentions, but exploit their actions for his own gain.
Nicky, Garner’s pre-adolescent son, is easily the film’s protagonist and hero, that as seen in The Dark Tower, Suburbicon implies that white youth, in their willingness to befriend black males, are the hope for an anti-racist future. This suggestion is as narcissistic and laughable as it is self-serving to the white savior image pervasive throughout every avenue of American life. Like The Dark Tower, Suburbicon implements a black male body to fictively diversify an otherwise all white case. Suburbicon, slightly advances the pursuit of pseudo diversity in casting a black family who integrates a white middle class neighborhood as figures in a utopian backdrop. As seen in countless instances prior, the black body becomes the canvass to which all whites cast their sins. After Rose, a well-to-do white woman is murdered in her own home, the Mayers, a respectable black family, incurs the blame. When neighbors seek to disrupt the sanctity of this family by building a fence, singing loudly on their lawn, vandalizing their car, and breaking their front window to drape the confederate flag— the black family endures blame for the animalistic actions of whites.
I feel compelled to state that I do not support integrative efforts, namely blacks who seek to live amongst whites. But I will say that the depiction of the grave efforts implemented by white bodies to maintain a space established in black exclusion was disturbingly accurate.
If the film did nothing else well, it captured the desperation and sheer ugliness of white greed and the need for whites to have someone to blame and otherwise look down upon. The cost in delivering said images, comes in casting black people along the backdrop in the film. The black family, although portrayed by able and attractive actors, are essentially faceless and one- dimensional. The black family surfaces to denounce the idea of a white utopia. Ironically, the film, as stated by some of its characters, implies that it is the presence of a black family that unveils white utopia as a dystopia–by offsetting a series of unfortunate events with the black family’s move into surburbicon. But despite this dystoia, Suburbicon predictably concludes by emphasizing the motif of white liberalism–that there is potential for a non-racist white subject.
The film ends with Nicky—the son of the murderous father and husband who left a trail of blood in his desperate attempt for sex and money, playing with his black friend Andy (Tony Espinosa). The two boys toss a ball to one another over a fence that separates them. While noticeably more peaceful than any other scene in the film, the image suggests an ability of black and whites to harmoniously co-exist via an informal segregation. While I do not disagree with blacks and whites having designated spaces were interaction is optional not mandatory, this implicit idea also implies that this informal segregation is what allows for utopia–subtly suggesting that the black family’s failure to exercise this ideology proves a catalyst for the dystopia depicted in the film. An implication that acquiesces rather than challenges notions of white supremacy.
Suburbicon also implies that Nicky, although pursuing normal day with a house full of dead bodies, is “better” than his murderous and adulterous father, who although the epitome of evil warns him against “playing with that colored boy.” Incidentally, by playing with “that colored boy,” Nicky allegorical represents the “good” that can come from evil. Andy, Nicky’s black friend, functions to humanize a child who will grow up to possess the same racial psychopathy as his father. Except maybe, given the film’s recycling of the outcasted white who finds camaraderie in a black person (or people), (i.e. Skeeter from The Help) Nicky may grow up to have a black wife, or at the very least, a black friend.
The film, while not the worst film made in the last five years, fails to deviate from a white supremacist agenda because of its obvious attempt to demonize and humanize whites in the same chord.
Social Commentary about whites by white people will only go so far. “Radical” white social commentary or criticism will go out on a limb and depict the white man and woman as both the devil and the angel—performing the very psychopathy it seems to combat.
With regards to psychopathy, the film accurately displays its white characters, with the exception of young Nicky, as callous and cavalier.
While the images presented in the film seem exaggerated, they are a watered-down version of what a global historical trajectory reveals to be true. Yet, despite this truth, many blacks will be shocked at the footage, and as reflected in many white authored reviews pertaining to the movie, many whites will be outraged. They of course won’t admit to being indignant regarding the exposure of white incivility, so instead express dissatisfaction regarding technicalities–proving that action need not be revolutionary to rock the effete boat of white esteem.
Although certainly possessing brief moments of contemplation or truth, the film fails to hold white feet to the fire, or at the very least, their eyes to the truth. Furthermore, Suburbicon proves a means for whites to once again eschew reality for a fantastical version of their collective selves.
So while Clooney appears to entertain the query of what it means it means to be white, he renders a morose answer in both production and product, implicitly asserting that to be white is to pursue a fictive self-portrait in front of and behind the camera. `
The cycle continues.
❤ Black Power
2 Comments Add yours
Thank you for this powerful analysis of issues that are way bigger than the film. However, I believe the film is unfairly condemned by the commentariat. For me, it is an audacious way to frame a story about conservative white America and it is as relevant today as in the 50s.
I love your movie reviews. This one sounds interesting I will have to check it out!