George Washington is a Great, Great Film
George Washington directed by David Gordon Green
First, full disclosure: I initially saw George Washington unawares as a jury member at the Newport International Film Festival last summer. My fellow jurors and I had never seen anything like it. We unanimously agreed to award it the three top prizes within our mandate (Best Film, Best Director and Best Acting?to the ensemble teenage cast). Returning to New York, I spoke to Richard Pena at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and told him of the Newport discovery. Honest and open, Pena was aware of George Washington, admitting it had already been rejected for the New Directors/New Film Series that spring. I encouraged him to reconsider?in fact, to resee the film. Subsequently, Pena and the New York Film Festival, in a brave, unprecedented turnabout, included George Washington among its selections; the film got a chance at wider recognition. This intervention was necessary because George Washington goes against almost every trend that is popular in contemporary film culture. And yes, I do have a stake in this movie?I love it.
David Gordon Green, the 25-year-old director-writer, focuses on five black and white preteens in North Carolina. Twelve-year-old Nasia (Candace Evanofski) narrates this lyrical appreciation of friendship, concentrating on George Richardson (Donald Holden), the quiet, strange boy she admires for his solitude and ambition: "When I look at my friends, at the bones in their hands... I know there is goodness." Right away, Green goes beneath the surface of things. Through meditative, visually poetic sequences, he discloses a spiritual consciousness that, amazingly, also has documentary credibility. Nasia and George, plus their friends Buddy (Curtis Cotten III), Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy) evoke the generation of poor kids campaigning politicians don't talk about: the disenfranchised who are dangerously pandered to by pop media. Yet Green looks at them so soulfully their faces are out of time; the longings they confess to each other, whether talking about kissing or boredom, reflect one's own.
Green's unusual method might throw some viewers. His downtime survey (characters doing nothing in particular, but captured at vulnerable moments) lilts poignantly. With gradual, surprising power he reveals a general subconscious feeling of social tragedy. This multiracial, multimood vision may be Southern-set but it's essentially street-smart?a sensitive, alternative point of view. Without hoisting placards, George Washington expresses something ineffable that has gone wrong in American life, that puts at risk these kids who are far away from mainstream society's notice. But Green doesn't seek pity; he attends to the possibility of innocence in lives lived without self-pity or cynicism. Green's insistence defies the anxieties (and prejudices) of the information society and voodoo economics. The weight of America's tragic history?economic depression, slavery, racism?apparent in joblessness, blasted factories, disused amusement parks and railroad yards (the abandoned industrial spaces George W. Bush calls "brown fields") is countered by each kid's redoubtable humanity. Buddy is in love with Nasia, Vernon is protective of Buddy and Sonya. George, who has a physical disability that restricts his play, nevertheless performs an heroic deed, even donning a homemade superhero outfit. Their hearts beat in a broken body politic.
George has a kid's noble brow; his head swells when exposed to adverse conditions?as any sentient person's might. Looking like a comic version of adolescent daydreaming?wearing a kitchen curtain as a cape, the classic Davy Crockett coonskin hat and wrestling tights?George puts faith in America's promises. His naivete is based on his native sense of history. And the film asserts this as his right. George evokes George Washington, "the father of our country," because Green can feel America's past and future in its present generation. Most of our pop culture, especially youth music culture, dissuades us from such personal consciousness. George Washington is a breakthrough?to what's inside us.
Sensitively, Green combines political astuteness with visual imagination. His desolate locales (Southern back roads and deserted play spaces) teem with renegade life, rather than desolation?a poet's trick. He captures the all-American existentialism of race, sex, economic stress. These settings (places travelers bypass quickly) stir one's national subconscious?and personal memory. The film's pivotal event happens in a vacant lavatory, the kind of oblivion (you might recall) in which kids traditionally sneak initiation. An accident there casts George and his friends into a moral dilemma that instantly fulfills dreaded expectation. Here Green launches an intuitive, audacious conceit: a strangely mournful montage of trucks and dumpsters in a landfill, uselessly shifting civilization's debris. As a metaphor for the kids' quiet hysteria?and someone's death?it's both apt and chilling; an elegy for a lost generation. Green has made poetry (sense) of our social wreckage.
Befitting a hiphop-improved Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, George Washington uses language (rap) provocatively. Featuring kids who talk seriously?like adults?and adults as confused as kids, Green creates an intergenerational, emotional harmony rarely seen outside Spielberg movies. It's funniest and most ironic when George checks a list of safety hazards while his enraged uncle breaks things in their junk-filled backyard. It can be breathtaking, too?as when George's little sister sings "The Holy Spirit" in church. Over the image of George searching alleys for some purpose, we hear Nasia muse, "When you walk with no one to laugh with you or hold your hand, it's a different kind of walk." In such moments George Washington exposes a fierce loneliness that both adolescent and adult characters struggle to remedy. Green's screenplay divulges the recondite knowledge we store, that becomes a cultural connection. Buddy, wearing a dinosaur mask, recites some florid words in an empty amphitheater to which an adult responds, "Is that the Bible or Shakespeare?" Vestiges of religion and social custom are apparent in assorted exchanges. Girls giggling about a "pop kiss," or Vernon's stunning lament, "I wish there was one belief, my belief." Each of the film's interludes is an instant of confession or intimate exchange. Green weaves different experiences but his narrative?an unusual sense of closeness with the warmly photographed people?provokes personal recognition.
The movie feels confidential, maybe even esoteric, but such films (as Jean-Luc Godard advised) can also serve as political bequests. Politics inform Green's esthetic, starting with the bold decision made with his gifted cinematographer Tim Orr to shoot in color and Cinemascope. The compositional elegance and glowing colors present each characters' private suffering or wonderment to the world?legitimizing and honoring it. Just to show kids' responses to the unknown (or to death) imagines their morality, their humanity. Most movies are not attuned to this but Green and Orr follow a great tradition. That is, of course, the radical, poetic view of youth from Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct to Truffaut's The 400 Blows, but though George Washington is closer to Vigo, it has more direct, American antecedents that make it seem even stranger. Green's natural, semidocumentary view of underclass life (kids throwing rocks, couples suffering shared impotence) comes out of Charles Burnett's little-seen 1977 Killer of Sheep?the homegrown neorealist poem Burnett made in response to the lies of blaxploitation. Green uncannily melds that sensitivity to the cosmic, artsy constructs of Terrence Malick's oeuvre (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), replete with "naive" narration, trenchant music and phenomenological visual splendor.
Evoking what children see and don't see, George Washington makes the greatest case I know for the moral responsibility of art. Art may not teach people how to feel, but it can aid understanding. And young Green clearly melds Art and Perception as an inheritor of Malick and Burnett legacies. This inspiration is as legitimate as that Coppola took from Visconti for The Godfather or the way Scorsese took from I Vitelloni for Mean Streets. And yet, George Washington's New South and modern American sensitivity prove Green's own original vision.
Our culture doesn't frequently present images of black people as fully human. I've noted that difference since my own media-watching childhood (and in adulthood realized that most whites did not). Green reacts to this cultural catastrophe wholeheartedly, poetically. Instead of turning these kids into The Breakfast Club clones, he endows adolescent American experience with cinema's highest artistic regard?even though Altman, Coppola, Malick never exactly went there, even though Burnett never quite had the means. And you would have to be a moral idiot, resistant to the idea of sincere American film art, not to realize how these black and white girls, boys and adults all represent Green's own complexes. It's not mystifying that a film should bridge the secret gulfs in American racial and economic experience, only that no filmmaker has managed to do it until now.
Hiphop, despite the fashion and music industries promoting it, has not grieved for misled kids or the pain of lives commonly lived. It mostly offers forms of dubious escapism. Yet, George Washington (which wisely uses other American regional music) might not exist without hiphop culture. Growing up in the hiphop era has given Green the license to identify with others. Just as The Source has progressed from exploiting hiphop glamour to sober journalism that includes an intelligent series called "American Dreamers" pointedly looking at "ordinary" lives, Green carefully avoids portraying black youth as criminal or sexual stereotypes. He finds something akin to Emersonian identification.
These young dreamers, splendidly individual, make George Washington irresistible. Orr gives their skin tones radiance in keeping with the film's sunset and rust-colored scheme (although in a swimming pool sequence, the contrasting play of brown flesh and light is dazzling). Balancing kids' real-life talk and behavior with private musings suggests Green has prodigious talent or prodigious luck. Nasia's flirtatious sanity displays women's primal romantic search. Buddy's love for her ("She had this glaze in her eye that made me tingle all over") distills child-man helplessness that pairs him to the adult Rico (Paul Schneider), the train-station supervisor's son, who reminisces about "dating this white girl." (Both boy and man end their laments carrying sparklers.) Green doesn't see any character as a type?the way Larry Clark condescended and stereotyped the underclass in the loathsome Kids. Each character is distinctive: George's Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), who quits his debilitating job and admits a childhood trauma; his wife Ruth (Janet Taylor), who recalls the good days of their marriage and later consoles another woman's panic. Green tracks his characters through complicated but telling details like Damascus' new job?a lonely parallel to Rico's aimless motorbike ride through town. Both scenes reveal class stasis within "economic mobility" as each man?an interracial lover, an inconsolable itinerant?searches for something more.
But it's George who is Green's Emersonian "representative man." Such classic Emerson aphorisms as "Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string" or "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind" match the tone of Green's dialogue and narration. When George looks at the camera, he could be a mirror reminding us of our best selves. The spiritual emphasis given to George's deeds?his desire to be president of the United States?and such numinous images as a hat he sets aflame (pace To Sleep with Anger) carry the searching, devout sense of God's immanence in man; what Emerson called the omnipresent and benevolent Over-Soul, a source of spiritual energy from which man (and children) intuit morality. I don't think Green exactly offers an interpretation of Emerson's Transcendentalism; it's more likely that he stumbled onto a similar philosophical path simply by observing the people and culture around him. That coincidence makes George Washington authentic and wonderful. A flashback to George's baptism recalls the raw beauty of the baptism in Haskell Wexler's 1969 Medium Cool (another lonely, visionary, truly independent work). Green and Orr pay tribute to Wexler the same way George tenderly baptizes Buddy in a hidden creek?repeated folk rituals, both pursuing personal struggles, personal beliefs.
To find that essence in contemporary black American youth requires an artistic leap over Hollywood convention; it necessitates Green's conscious poetry. No straight documentary (the other possible route) has probed American youth as deeply or so beautifully. (If anything, documentary has led to the dishonest faux-realism of Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy.) Green shows how documentary can be surpassed by finding real-life parallels for his own spiritual search and then respecting his subjects' individual humanity. Inside its poetry, George Washington imparts a social and political complex?in the ironic George Bush portrait in a black kid's home; Damascus' Faulknerian soliloquy; Rico's furtive sex life; Nasia's acceptance of George's aspirations even if they take him beyond her. These things are universal?and affecting?probably because the language Green uses is somewhat private.
Can our film culture appreciate that George Washington, the movie closest to our national pain and hopes, is not a heavily promoted, hot-topic screed but a delicate reverie made by talented young whites and talented unknown black kids? Can we see ourselves that humbly and honestly? With this one film, David Gordon Green has killed the notion of "race" (or "black") cinema. He's provided a baptism in what folk culture means for everyone and what it's worth. In recent film history there has been no greater achievement.
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