SUBURBICON, directed and co-scripted by George Clooney, actually is two films in one. It is a portrait of a post-World War II suburban America that is superficially ideal. Quite literally, it presents itself as heaven on earth. Its ever-smiling citizens are savoring a post-war and post-Depression prosperity. But of course they are Caucasian, and heaven forbid if an African-American family dares to intrude on their space simply by moving into their community.
This of course is no exaggeration. It mirrors the reality of the era, and what happens in SUBURBICON is based on riots that occurred in suburban Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, when William and Daisy Myers, an African-American couple, had the audacity to purchase a home in this for-whites-only community. Plus, in the film, racism American-style is not the lone factor that strikes at the core of post-war suburban America. One telling example: In 1950s America, children are expected to “behave themselves,” to not think for themselves, and to address their fathers with a compliant “Yes, sir.”
At the same time, SUBURBICON features a pair of whacked-out criminal types who show up out of nowhere. They are arbitrarily violent and, in their comportment, they are right out of a Coen brothers’ concoction. This is not surprising, as Joel and Ethan Coen are the film’s co-screenwriters. These bad guys are Caucasian, but it is oh so easy for the suburbanites to blame the African-American presence for all the illicit activity and rule-breaking occurring in their midst.
To be sure, SUBURBICON is a well-intentioned film: a pointed, no-holds-barred exploration of hypocrisy American-style. Even though it is set in America’s mid-20th-century past, it deals with issues that are as current as what recently came down in Charlottesville, Virginia. But cinematically-speaking, its two elements do not blend together. The Coen brothers-style characters do not fit in here, and the film degenerates into a nothing-special thriller.
In SUBURBICON, George Clooney does not appear onscreen. Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac are among those who do. But Clooney offered some pointed comments about the film during a Toronto International Film Festival press conference. “We thought it was a funny idea to put it in the suburbs in the 1950s, when we all thought everything was so perfect-- if you were (a) white, straight male,” he explained.
“I grew up in Kentucky... in the ‘60s and ‘70s, (when) segregation had come to an end,” he observed, before noting: “But it didn’t. It stalled...” And one of the keys here is that racism American-style was not confined to the American South. “When you see in film this kind of bigotry,” Clooney continued, “it’s always MISSISSIPI BURNING; it’s always Southern guys saying terrible things. (Those in) the Northeast like to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t like that’,” he stated, before immediately adding: “Well, actually, you were. You are not absolved of all this...”
For myself, I know this from personal experience. As further proof, it is essential not to forget the facts regarding what happened in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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