Within heart-shot of William Faulkner, 25-year-old David Gordon Green’s impressionistic feature debut is a seamless blend of subjectivity (character voiceover; point-of-view shots), pseudo-documentary, evocation of childhood, mythopoeia. In an impoverished small town in North Carolina sometime earlier, children converse. “Look at this place,” one boy says to another. “It looks like two tornadoes came through here.” The town is dilapidated; one of the “tornadoes” may have been the Great Depression. Shots of railroad tracks suggest dreams of getting out. Twelve-year-old Nasia’s voiceover, which accompanies these shots, extends the moment to a haunted range of time and of time’s passage, perhaps beyond the range of her literal experience, but not beyond the eternity of her soul: “They used to try to find clues to all the mysteries and mistakes that God had made.” She adds about her friend, thirteen-year-old George, that “[h]e said he was going to be president of the United States.” These are African-American children.
Death hovers: a boy dies; as a result, another boy feels that God’s judgment is close; another boy almost dies; a boy’s dog dies. George is George Washington—although we find out late this is not his actual name. George’s soft heart—he is always ready to be helpful—suits his soft head; George often must wear protective head gear to prolong his vulnerable life. Literally, he is different than us; metaphorically, he is just like us.
Adults exist at the periphery of this film, but an astonishing scene involves two adult women. George risks his life to rescue another boy, who has slipped into a community swimming pool and, unconscious, is drowning. The white boy’s mother visits George’s home, proclaiming that the woman who has answered the door is the mother of a real hero. The black woman curtly corrects the woman standing outside: “I’m his aunt.” The white woman presses the moment; George’s aunt relents and hugs her. Racial harmony? I think not. Before our eyes, the scene has flawlessly slid from some sort of reality to the condescending fantasy of the mother’s neediness. Her gratitude, it would appear, requires that the black woman buckle under it. Meanwhile, George’s “heroism” has resulted in his being bedridden in a perilous state. When George recovers he also wears a comic strip-hero’s cape. I could not help but notice we never see again the white boy he rescued.
The theme of George Washington is “the loss of all things.”
Green won the best first film prize from the New York critics, the Discovery Award at Toronto, and the best director prize at Newport. (To say the least, we have heard from him since: Undertow, Snow Angels, Pineapple Express.) Tim Orr’s color cinematography bewitches. Green and Orr create time outside of time. Their children reflect every scrap of hope that can be scavenged in a hopeless place.
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