George Clooney’s Awkward White Guilt in ‘Suburbicon’


Nice try. We’re just in hoary old Hollywood, where showing a problem tends to be confused with addressing it. All we know about the family across the way — they’re the Mayerses — is that they’re new homeowners and that they’re black. And boy, are they restrained. When racists scream at her, Mrs. Mayers doesn’t scream back. She merely continues to pin the laundry on the clothesline. When she experiences a customized price hike at the grocery store (for her, every item is suddenly $20), she relents and makes the sort of stoic exit that a movie like this needs to double as a triumph of dignity.

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The black family in “Suburbicon” doesn’t get much of a story.

Credit
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Paramount Pictures

Meanwhile, Mr. Mayers barely gets a line. But he mows a mean lawn. Their kid spends the movie playing with Nicky, who’s mandated to do it by his aunt. The mandate extends to Mr. Clooney, whose sense of social progressivism hits a ceiling. The way the Mayers family functions isn’t all that different from how Dianne Reeves’s jazz singing and the footage of the actual Annie Lee Moss’s testimony are deployed in Mr. Clooney’s 2005 docudrama, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

They were flicking at progressivism that the movie didn’t have the political bandwidth to get into. But the difference is that both women (neither of whom achieves character status) are part of the movie’s wider sanctimony in recreating Edward R. Murrow’s battle in the 1950s with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his televised anti-Communist witch hunt. It’s righteousness on Ambien. But I put up with the movie’s turning Ms. Reeves and the footage of Moss into weapons: They served the movie’s thematic strategy. Unlike, “Suburbicon,” it had an argument. McCarthyism really is bad.

Yet it seems that in his films, “dignified” is the only way Mr. Clooney wants to imagine black people. Anytime a movie or television show retreats into certain American pasts, I’m both annoyed and relieved. “Back then” can provide cover for an all-white cast. It can feel like an excuse or a hide out. But filmmakers might want to be careful about where the time machine sends them. Sofia Coppola’s went back to the Civil War, for “The Beguiled.” Rather than deal with the moral centrality of slavery, she simply freed the slaves herself. Sometimes you get very good filmmaking anyway. You also get gentrification.

Mr. Clooney has directed six movies; five are set in the middle of the previous century. And “Suburbicon” clarifies why. Race is a blind spot. None of the scenes with the Mayerses go on for more than 90 seconds; most last less than 15. And all are intended as a moral counterpoint to the darkening frivolity going on at the Lodges’. The Times’s Manohla Dargis got at this inequality in her review of the film. The casting telegraphs the movie’s priorities. The black actors — Karimah Westbrook, Tony Espinosa and Leith M. Burke — may not be as famous as the movie’s white stars, but Mr. Clooney hasn’t given them a chance to show whether they’re also as good.

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Noah Jupe, left, as Nicky Lodge and Tony Espinosa as Andy Mayers in “Suburbicon.”

Credit
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Paramount Pictures

In September, after the “Suburbicon” premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, he told David Sims, of The Atlantic, that he knows his approach is imperfect. “In all fairness, there are a lot of people better qualified to make the African-American story in suburbia, I think,” Mr. Clooney said.

“There’s a version of this film I’d like to see from the other side that could be better represented by someone who can speak to that better than me, and probably should.” He went on: “I think my version was what I know, which is white angst and the fear of losing your place to minorities.” He also said that he’d like to see others directors — Ava DuVernay or Steve McQueen, say — do a version of this story.

Sure, it’s possible that the white riots happening in “Suburbicon” reflect the current tour of white nationalist pop-up events. And perhaps somewhere inside this movie lives a farce that reckons with white indifference in the face of national catastrophe. But no one had the audacity to find it. The movie is the catastrophe, instead. During the era in which this movie is set, you would get dramas like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out,” from 1950, or “Pressure Point,” a social drama from 1962 that Stanley Kramer had a hand in. They both star Sidney Poitier, and neither is afraid of at least trying to see race “from the other side.” The violent, relentless depiction of racism in “No Way Out,” complete with a race riot, is actually still pretty shocking. They’re as square as the movies Mr. Clooney tends to make, but they’re also daring, however imperfectly, to look right at the present rather than hunkering down in the past.

The big surprise of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is its conception of a racism that doesn’t need lynch mobs or a Confederate flag to make its point. Good, liberal white people — the ones for whom “I voted for Obama” is supposed to be an icebreaker — inflict as much harm as obvious bad ones. Mr. Clooney is not humanizing the Mayerses, per se. He is using them. The sad thing is that he didn’t need to. The black characters have nothing to do with the plot of this movie. They’re here almost against their will, kept in the white-controlled existential purgatory that Mr. Peele’s movie identifies as the sunken place.

By the final bogusly optimistic shot, it’s obvious what “Suburbicon” wants you to know: This movie voted for Obama.

If Hollywood movies are in trouble, something as confused as this one signals a hastening of their demise. Most of me will always want some version of this middlebrow entertainment in my life. But if fighting to keep that kind of movie alive also means fighting for the cynicism of “Suburbicon,” the rest of me wants to say get out.

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