Venice Film Festival

Clooney tackles race issues

Director George Clooney depicts a toxic 1950s America in his new film, Suburbicon

Huge crowds gathered in Venice to see George Clooney and his wife Amal Clooney on the red carpet on Saturday for the premiere of comedy crime thriller Suburbicon.
George Clooney (left) with his wife Amal.
George Clooney (left) with his wife Amal.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

VENICE • George Clooney has pried open a lot of curtains in his movies and takes a close peek - this time at the thorny topic of race - in his new movie, Suburbicon.

Which meant he was back in the Venice limelight last Saturday with the toxic depiction of 1950s America, which he said he was inspired to make after listening to United States President Donald Trump's election rhetoric.

Speaking in the city where he married his lawyer wife Amal three years ago, Clooney revealed that the concept for the film, which was developed from an old Coen brothers script, came to him around the start of the US presidential campaign.

Then, he started hearing "speeches about building fences and scapegoating minorities".

And with race, post-Charlottesville, again in the foreground of US politics, his sixth film as a director has acquired more contemporary relevance than he and co-writer Grant Heslov anticipated.

"I grew up in the South in the 1960s at the time of the civil rights movement and we thought we were putting those issues to bed, that segregation was going away," the 56-year-old told a packed press conference.

When you talk about Making America Great Again, the time when America was great, everyone assumes, was the Eisenhower 1950s. It was great probably if you were a white, straight male, but other than that, it was not so great.

FILM DIRECTOR GEORGE CLOONEY (with his wife Amal arriving for the premiere of Suburbicon during the 74th Venice Film Festival last Saturday) Venice Film Festival

"Of course, we weren't and we still have these eruptions every couple of years that tell us we still have a lot of work to do from our original sin of slavery and racism."

Clooney, who has a house on nearby Lake Como, is a Venice regular and Suburbicon is in the running for this year's Golden Lion, the top prize at the world's oldest cinema festival.

He and Amal were spotted enjoying a no-kids date night, three months after she gave birth to their first children, twins Ella and Alexander.

The Suburbicon of the movie title is an idyllic small town suburb of neat backyards lined by wooden fences. Packets of Tony the Tiger's Frosties fill the kitchen cupboards and there is a Chevrolet or an Oldsmobile on every drive.

But this cinematically familiar territory located in an age of optimism also hosts a darker side of cruelly enforced racial segregation and mob loansharking that provides the backdrop for the blood-splattered plot.

There is, literally, poison in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches enjoyed by Suburbicon resident Gardner Lodge and his family.

Gardner, played by a deliberately beefier-than-usual Matt Damon, lives with his wheelchair-bound wife Rose, her sister Margaret and their son Nicky. Gardner has money worries, Rose blames him for the accident that left her disabled and Margaret envies her sister's life.

But these secret tensions aside, nothing hints at the grisly mayhem which ensues after two mobsters chloroform the family during a bungled break-in, killing Rose.

Gardner's world soon begins to unravel completely in a sequence of events driven by a typically Coen-esque cocktail of lust, greed and stupidity, and seen mostly through the eyes of Nicky.

Meanwhile, the Meyers, an African-American family, have moved in next door. Nicky is thrilled to have a new friend, their son Andy, to play with, but the rest of the town is not so welcoming.

Andy's mother Daisy visits the local store only to discover that the price of every item has been hiked to US$20, just for her.

Soon the family are under siege in their new home, hundreds of protesters banging drums around the clock in an effort to force them out.

Clooney said he had wanted to puncture rose-tinted views of a time in American history that is frequently seen as something of a golden age of prosperity and hope.

"When you talk about Making America Great Again, the time when America was great, everyone assumes, was the Eisenhower 1950s," Clooney said, in a reference to one of Mr Trump's core election slogans.

"It was great probably if you were a white, straight male, but other than that, it was not so great.

"So it is fun to lift up that curtain and look under that thin veneer and see some of the real problems of our country that it has yet to completely come to terms with."

The director took inspiration from what happened when the real-life Myers became the first black family to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957. By the evening of their first day in their new home, they had 500 people on their lawn, Confederate flags on their house and a cross burning next door.

Clooney uses contemporary news footage of the harassment. "Sometimes you have to see the real stuff to make it really land," he said.

Through their foundation, the Clooneys recently donated US$1 million (S$1.36 million) to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights advocacy organisation that monitors hate groups.

The gift followed clashes between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one woman dead.

Clooney said Suburbicon reflects deep anger in the US, though he declared "this isn't a movie about Donald Trump". "People are angry, a lot of us are angry, angry at ourselves, angry at the way that the country is going, angry at the way the world is going," he noted.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Clooney tackles race issues'. Subscribe