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The Careless Dismissal of Black Lives in the Problematic Suburbicon

Tony in Suburbicon

I suppose from director George Clooney and co-writers Ethan and Joel Coen’s privileged perch, Suburbicon is their way of saying, Yeah, we heard you. We need to make more diverse movies. But in this thinly veiled effort to merely appease audiences, the filmmaking trio, along with additional screenwriter Grant Heslov, only managed to further marginalize and whitewash characters of color in a story that was so obviously meant to be another Fargo and not at all a thoughtful exploration of the racial and social politics of a white 1950s suburb.

And I like the Coen brothers’ work, a lot—their earlier work, though, before they started reimagining Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac as a hipster white man in Inside Llewyn Davis. They obviously don’t know what to do with actors of color, unless they can represent them in a way that benefits the white male gaze and subverts their race (see other example: Spanish actor Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning performance in No Country for Old Men). So, you can just imagine what happens here when they try to tackle a very real story of a black family moving to an all-white neighborhood in which they were not wanted, and they risk their lives each time they step outside their home. Things don’t go well.

But never fear, they don’t actually tell this story anyway. Instead, we get a film about Gardner, a white husband and father (Matt Damon) who’s at the center of a spiraling plot in which he hires a hitman to kill his wife so he can take the insurance money and live happily ever after with her sister (Julianne Moore). Yes, you read that right. They decided against a story that deserves to be told on the big screen—one that highlights the racist history of suburban culture—in favor of another quirky dark comedy that instead focuses on uncovering the immoralities of a so-called idyllic suburbia through a white male gaze (insurance fraud, murder, and the mob). Never mind, folks, nothing new to see here.

Perhaps for people who base 1950s suburbia on Leave It to Beaver, suburban life is in fact the picture of perfection, so Suburbicon would be a real eye opener for them. But for the rest of us, this narrative isn’t particularly groundbreaking, and for black people who tried to make a better life for themselves and their families in the suburbs, it was pure hell. It’s like the filmmakers discovered midway through the process how dire it was for black people and pivoted to a much more fun and digestible film for their white audiences to appreciate, which means pushing that story aside.

But it’s not all the way gone. It’s still part of the movie, even from the first few minutes when the film introduces its setting like a posh new country club, where you can find a sea of white smiling faces ready to greet you. Of course, the subtext here is everyone who doesn’t look like the people in these pictures should beware. It’s cheeky, it’s amusing yet in a very uncomfortable way, and reduces the concept of racism in the suburbs to merely a peripheral subplot. The film’s conflicting themes reach an unbearable level about three quarters of the way through.

Let me walk you through it: It’s the middle of the night and Gardner is covered in blood after trying to cover up his original murderous plot with two other murders (one by explosion and another by stabbing), rolling down the street on a kid’s bicycle back to his home across the street from the lone black family, the Mayers. He’s clearly causing a bunch of mayhem around town, yet goes completely unchecked. Juxtaposed with this chaotic scene are the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke), huddled in fear in their home as their yard is surrounded by their white neighbors who vandalize their car, set it on fire, and throw bricks at their home.

Law enforcement is at the Mayers’ home, too, feebly holding the violent crew back. Clooney flips back and forth between these two scenes perhaps to incite rage in the audience about what’s happening, but neither narrative is presented well enough to really provoke any such feeling. It’s more confusing and careless than anything else. Are we watching an increasingly ridiculous murder tale or are we supposed to consider this much more seriously? It’s just sloppy and disturbing in all the wrong ways.

Clooney, who’s made it a point to speak out in favor of inclusivity in Hollywood, fails miserably. The film spins way off the rails, yet he directs it with the confidence of an artist in his prime. It’s white male mediocrity hard at work. It might have its moments, but mostly Suburbicon is an ill-advised, messy, and problematic film that flagrantly misses its own mark.

(image: Paramount Pictures)

Candice Frederick is an award-winning journalist (ESSENCE), founder of the film blog Reel Talk Online, co-host of the pop culture show “Real Live” on ABC News Live, and a freelance TV/film critic living in New York City. You can find her work here. Follow her on Twitter.

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