''Manderlay" is the second chapter in Lars von Trier's planned three-part jeremiad against America's wicked ways. The first you might recall, although maybe not, was 2003's ''Dogville." The few folks who saw it probably live under the same art-house rock. ''Dogville" was rough and unkind. A small Depression-era mining town bullied and exploited good-hearted Nicole Kidman until her milk of human kindness curdled. The movie was brilliantly reductive (there's no such thing as true Christian charity) and so was its production design: a big, starkly decorated stage that, from certain angles, looked like a chalkboard, which, as it happened, was perfect for the movie's lessons in socialization. (John Hurt provides the pseudo-anthropological storybook narration.)
For better and for worse, ''Manderlay" is more of the same. Flanked by her gangster father (Willem Dafoe, replacing James Caan) and his coterie of goons, Grace, von Trier's naïve heroine, wanders into a minimalist set that's meant to be Alabama. And now she's played by Bryce Dallas Howard and not Kidman, who presumably had had enough of her director's tortures. Grace discovers a plantation called Manderlay and is outraged to learn that Mam (Lauren Bacall), the property's dying matriarch, still employs slaves even though slavery has been abolished for 70 years. Grace demands on the rheumy old woman's deathbed that her employees be told that they're actually free to go.
There's a sharp moment when, having freed them, Grace sits beside her father and is disappointed not to see a dozen black faces streaming through the plantation's gates. That scene and a handful more are the surest acts of satire and the clearest jabs at liberal narcissism in the movie -- and some of von Trier's most incisive writing, too.
Upon Mam's death, Grace naively winds up taking over the property and living among the blacks. If an allegory for the current situation in Iraq tickles your fancy, you could say she's occupying the land. Sure enough, she's frustrated that, with this regime change, the emancipated have turned idle and distracted. But -- von Trier is saying -- she's given them no structure. How do they know to survive on their own: to thatch the leaky roof, pick the cotton, and so on without being instructed to do so?
At this point, von Trier's satirical intentions collapse into an intellectual stalemate: The movie fights racism with racism. The black characters are a sad, outwardly joyless bunch who've known only one way of life but lack the ambition to live. Slavery is fine by them. But as the eldest slave, Will (a very good Danny Glover), suggests upon his emancipation, maybe the people on this plantation aren't ready for independence. Von Trier also gives us Timothy (Isaach De Bankole), an African who claims to be a royal tribesman. He's the most standoffish and eroticized of the former slaves, and his eye eventually falls upon Grace. He's meant to seem perceptive, but once his philosophical posturing turns repetitive (how often can he stand around and sulk?), he's all stereotype.
The famous, overtold story about von Trier is that he's a Dane who's never been to America. But obviously he has been to the movies, and, with ''Manderlay," what he rebukes is not so much an actual history of African-Americans and whites in the United States but the black-white power dynamic as commercialized by Hollywood. This is why the characters are only quasi-human: They're refractions of movie archetypes.
Von Trier cobbles together the same tired iconic ideas of black Americans without deconstructing them or subverting them or humanizing them. He follows the classic Hollywood race-relations paradigm through to its completion. Grace, incredibly, is the most sympathetic person here, even though we're meant to find her self-righteous indignation and her eventual condescension dismaying. But Howard is the most independent-minded actress von Trier has ever worked with. She gets the movie's central foolish-liberals joke but refuses to make Grace the punch line.
Despite its period setting, ''Dogville" was an ahistorical allegory of its maker's own devising. Its ingeniousness lay in von Trier's ability to leave the movie open to vastly different interpretations, which is why it was loved and loathed with equal passion: Its offenses were a matter of sensibility. ''Manderlay" is tackling real history with real implications. Von Trier clearly understands the indelible stain slavery and gangsterism have left on America (even if the two scourges don't mix well in his allegory). But the complexities of race elude him, even as his grasp on them gives the movie an intellectual intricacy that's worth fighting over.
Spike Lee has been treading similar terrain with both greater cogency and fewer similarities to Bertolt Brecht. ''Manderlay," though, is mad and perplexed in its own inscrutable, schematic way. The trouble is the angrier it gets, the more infuriatingly banal it becomes. The movie ends, as ''Dogville" did, with a photomontage scored to David Bowie's ''Young Americans."
For ''Manderlay," the photos aspire to a pictorial summation of the Negro's history in America, one you can play throughout Black History Month: the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. alive, Martin Luther King Jr. slain, blacks lynched, blacks beaten, blacks in dire poverty, the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and, finally, a lowly custodian cleaning the holy Lincoln Memorial. How awful being black in this country must be! But this is precisely the sort of thinking that begets the guilty, backhanded insults that von Trier is dismantling. For the sake of his argument, black can't be beautiful to him. It's to be narrowly pitied. Did he concoct this simple-minded epilogue? Or did Grace?
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.