The antagonism between Blacks and Humans lurks beneath the surface of the 2020 film "12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen. But in the 2005 film "Manderlay," directed by Lars von Trier, this antagonism avoids the pitfalls of disavowal that all too often characterize the signifying strategies of "12 Years a Slave" and, by extension, public debates around race. At the core of this civic and cinematic disavowal is the failure of discourse to remain in the hold of the ship; manifest in an inability or unwillingness to grapple with the difference between gratuitous violence, which elaborates and positions Black people, and contingent violence, which disciplines non-Black subalterns once those subalterns have been elaborated and positioned by discourse (the symbolic order).
Suggested background films: "12 Years a Slave" is available in Feature Films for Education. (Unfortunately, there isn’t a streaming source for "Manderlay" available right now.)
Frank B. Wilderson, III, is professor and chair of African American Studies, and a core faculty member of the Culture and Theory Ph.D. Program at U.C.-Irvine; and an award-winning writer whose books include Afropessimism (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2020); Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (Duke University Press 2015); and Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Duke University Press 2010). He spent five and a half years in South Africa, where he was one of two Americans to hold elected office in the African National Congress during the apartheid era. He also was a cadre in the underground. His literary awards include The American Book Award; The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for Creative Nonfiction; The Maya Angelou Award for Best Fiction Portraying the Black Experience in America; and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. Wilderson was educated at Dartmouth College (A.B government and philosophy), Columbia University (M.F.A./fiction writing), and U.C.-Berkeley (Ph.D./Rhetoric).