George Clooney’s Suburbicon is an acidic crime drama about a middle-class everyman (Matt Damon) who gets in over his head with a twisted criminal scheme. It’s also a sobering race relations drama based on the true story of the Myers, the first black family to move into the white suburb of Levittown, Pennsylvania in the 1950s.
If you’re having trouble imagining how those two things could possibly go together, well, apparently, so did George Clooney.
Okay, to be fair, it’s pretty clear what Clooney wanted to say with Suburbicon. But his message is simplistic, if well-intentioned, and its execution facepalm-worthy.
Suburbicon, which Clooney directed from a script credited to him, Grant Heslov, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen, takes place in an idyllic suburb populated by a veritable “melting pot” of white folks from as far away as New York, Ohio, and Mississippi. Then, one day, a black family moves in, and the other Suburbiconians absolutely lose their shit.
It’s not that these good white people are against racial integration – heavens, no! They just don’t think black people are “ready” for it. As a nice white lady explains on the television, the path to equality lies in black people “bettering themselves” and proving their worth, not by “pushing” into white society.
And until they do that, the whites are happy to show the blacks just how unworthy and unwanted they are – by screaming in town hall meetings, by protesting in front of the Meyers’ home, by literally fencing off the house from the rest of the community, and by forcing them out of local businesses.
Meanwhile, they’re ignoring the real rot going on right underneath their noses. Shortly after the Meyers’ arrival, the Lodges – the white family whose backyard borders the Meyers’ – are attacked in their home by two violent thugs. The mother dies, leaving behind her husband Gardner (Damon) and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Her sister, Margaret (Julianne Moore), decides to move in with the family for a bit – you know, just until they can get back on their feet.
If something smells funny to you about this whole situation, just wait. But even as the situation with the Lodges grows more and more dire, their neighbors continue to point the finger at the blameless black family. “None of this ever happened before the Meyers moved here,” one laments.
Suburbicon isn’t without its pleasures. Damon and Moore wring entertainment from every drop of nervous sweat, and Oscar Isaac has a brief but scene-stealing role as a charismatic insurance claims investigator who seems to enjoy his job a little too much. And Suburbicon has fun dreaming up new ways to add to its body count. Were this just a Coens-style crime drama, filtered through a bleak worldview and laced with dark humor, it might’ve worked.
It’s when Suburbicon tries to marry the Lodges’ predicament with the Meyers’ that it falls apart. It’s not lost on Clooney and his team that the same whites who demand better behavior from blacks are acting like savage beasts themselves (both in the movie and, you know, in the real world). Or that the privileged have a way of framing themselves as the “real” victims – in one scene, a white person complains that he’s being denied his “civil rights” to live wherever he wants.
But it is apparently lost on the filmmakers that they themselves are reducing this black family to something both more and less than human. The Meyers, in Suburbicon, aren’t really characters at all, but ideas, symbols, stand-ins for their entire race, paragons of black respectability. They bear their neighbors’ cruelty with dignity and grace, because what else can they do when they’re meant to serve as comforting reassurances for white viewers? Left unasked and unanswered is what happens to black people who can’t meet that picture-perfect middle-class standard, who are messy and flawed and fucked-up – who are human, in other words.
Certainly there’s a need for more films that feature black people between the 1860s and the 1960s; that reconsider white American nostalgia for an imagined homogenous golden age; that examine the hypocrisies of whiteness; that take an honest look at race from the perspective of the privileged. What we don’t need are more movies that treat black characters as props and backdrops for stories about white people, and black pain as entertainment and education for white people.
Throughout Suburbicon, the strongest connection between the Meyers and the Lodges lies in their young sons, who’ve struck up a fast friendship untainted by the suspicion and hatred that plague their elders. It’s perhaps the only part of Suburbicon that feels hopeful, even optimistic: Maybe this generation will be better than the last.
But we, of course, already know they won’t. Those kids are Baby Boomers, and white Baby Boomers grew up to vote for Trump in overwhelming numbers. Womp womp.