Lars von Trier acts as a slave to controversy

It may be set on an Alabama cotton plantation, but so few African-American actors would touch Lars von Trier's latest film, premiered in Cannes last night, that nine of the 12 black actors cast as slaves are British.

It may be set on an Alabama cotton plantation, but so few African-American actors would touch Lars von Trier's latest film, premiered in Cannes last night, that nine of the 12 black actors cast as slaves are British.

"We tried several [Americans] who thought it was a good thing that the film was being made and that it was interesting. But they didn't take part it in because it's explosive stuff in the USA," said Von Trier, whose Manderlay is vying for the Palme d'Or.

"The English actors were completely relaxed about it, and they said 'yes massa' to me every morning. They had a laugh," he said.

Von Trier's film steers clear of presenting the black characters as saintly. "It's a shame for the coloured [sic] actors if they're only allowed to play heroes. If they aren't allowed to be human as well."

The British actors include Clive Rowe, winner of an Olivier award; Dona Croll, currently starring in the West End in Elmina's Kitchen; and Ginny Holder, recently seen as Calpurnia in Deborah Warner's Julius Caesar at the Barbican.

Danny Glover, one of the three American actors, initially turned down the part. He was uncomfortable with the film being "told exclusively and entirely from a white perspective ... the images were very strong from that perspective".

Asked about the paucity of American films tackling the subject of slavery, Glover said: "It would be extraordinary for [the American] film culture to unravel [slavery] but it doesn't. People are afraid to deal with it. There is no framework for people to unravel it."

The film is Von Trier's follow-up to Dogville, in which Nicole Kidman stars as Grace. In Manderlay, Bryce Dallas Howard, who replaces Kidman, appears at a cotton plantation where the black workers are still treated as slaves, 70 years after their legal emancipation. Full of idealism, she steps in to help them take control of their own destinies, teaching them to vote on community decisions. But things do not go to plan.

Von Trier has said it is "quite clear" his film can be seen as alluding to President Bush's efforts to impose democracy in Iraq.

Explaining why he chose the US as the subject matter for his trilogy - despite never having visited it, since he is famously disinclined to fly - he said: "A big part of our lives has to do with America. In our country it is overwhelming.

"I feel there could just as well be an American military presence in Denmark. We are a nation under a very bad influence, because I think Bush is an asshole and doing a lot of really stupid things.

"America is sitting on the world and therefore I am making films about it. I'd say 60% of the things I have experienced in my life are American, so in fact I am an American. But I can't go there and vote. That's why I am making films about America."

He added: "Since I have said I am 60% American I can say there is one thing that kills any debate - an American disease called political correctness, which is a fear of talking ... What makes me a little bit sad is that there's an American TV show in which the president of the US is black. People say, 'Oh look, that's OK, there's a black president on TV.' That's completely humiliating because that's not how it is. There's no black president. Political correctness kills discussion."

Dogville was famously played out on a black studio floor with simple white markings on it to denote the movie's various spaces. Manderlay is different. This time the set is denoted by "black lines on the floor so there's something new to look at", says Von Trier.

Audiences may have to wait a while before the final part of his trilogy, to be called Wasington, he said. "I have ways of punishing myself. One is to make three films that are the same. I thought that was very mature. But maybe I am not mature enough. I will have to have a little break."

There is speculation that Kidman may return as Grace, though not if Bryce Dallas Howard can help it: "I would amputate my toes to work with Lars von Trier again."


Charlotte Higgins in Cannes

The GuardianTramp

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