George Washington is a Great, Great Film

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

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
(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
authentic and wonderful. A flashback to George’s baptism
recalls the raw beauty of the baptism in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 Medium
(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

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.