• George Washington: These American Lives

    By Armond White

    Presenting five poor, black and white North Carolina preteens as they awaken to love and death, George Washington (2000) tells a common adolescent story, yet the film is distinguished by the poetic, ruminative style of its twenty-five-year-old director, David Gordon Green. Unusually for a deliberately allusive, symbolic movie, George Washington combines emotional amplitude with documentary veracity. While capturing the real contemporary issues of poverty, youth, alienation, and racial interaction, it touches on the noblest, most loving quests of its characters and solicits a personal response from anyone who views it. Nasia (Candace Evanofski) breaks up with love-struck Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) because she is more fascinated by the dreamer George (Donald Holden). Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) intervenes to help his friend Buddy, and he’s also protective of little blonde Sonya (Rachael Handy). These ­innocent friendships, enacted by a non­professional but deeply charming ensemble cast, illustrate how our national history and our national future are immanent in our present. Each child inherits hope along with the bequest of social deprivation.

    The odd significance of the title George Washington provides the key to Green’s unique vision. The affecting title brings together standard African-American christening with the audience’s sophisticated historical awareness. Green transliterates George’s surname, Richardson, into Washington to complete the legacy to which his youthful hero (a fragile kid who must play gently and must not submerge his head in water because his skull has not fused) is fully ­entitled. Though George Richardson is among the legion of forgotten American youths and the descendant of slaves, he aspires to recognition, to greatness. Nasia believes him capable of it. And Green convincingly insists on that complex intertwining of humanism and history.

    George Washington was quickly recog­nized upon its debut at various film festivals and subsequent theatrical release as one of the triumphs of the current American independent ­movement. Its original perspective transforms what is appallingly famil­iar in American life: destitution, nihilism, bewildered youth, and the history of racial deprivation. Green’s unpretentious approach to the back­water setting revels in southern ­atmosphere and casual intimacy. It’s not a social protest, as done in past movies that grew out of reform movements, but a private, delicate perception uncon­nected to Holly­wood trends or cultural expectations. It comes from Green’s personal feelings about youth, race, and cinema, and these feelings can be felt.

    As a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Green got a film education that exposed him to the ­treasury of American cinema, from Hollywood classics customarily screened in 35 mm prints to such land­marks of personal expression as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1979), Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), and Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969). The influence of these films is apparent in George Washington’s authen­tic dailiness (Burnett), its regional fascination (Wexler), and its poetic visual splendor (Malick). Col­labo­rating with his classmate and cinematographer Tim Orr, Green aimed for a deluxe style of filmmaking, shooting in 35 mm anamorphic to give George Washington an undeniable professionalism and grandiloquence. This insistence on cinematic profi­ciency recalls the instant classicism of the French New Wave. Few movies about African-American youth have ever photographed the performers or their habitats as warmly as Orr does. This aesthetic confers seriousness on George Washington’s modest story.

    Green’s breakthrough integration of myths and poetic realism, of varied movie styles, gives viewers a sense of constant discovery and interpretation. The scene of a grave accident among the children is followed by a strangely mournful montage—of trucks and dumpsters in a landfill, uselessly shifting civilization’s debris—that not only changes the film’s emotional tone but subtly comments upon the action in the story to that point. As a metaphor for the kids’ quiet hysteria—and someone’s death—it’s both apt and chilling, an elegy for the postindustrial era’s doomed generation. This unusual approach to filmmaking is also apparent in Green’s mix of vernacular humor—among Nasia and her girlfriends as they discuss boys and do each other’s hair, or in the conversations between Buddy and one of the railroad workers, Rico Rice (Paul Schneider), that contrast their child and adult confessions about women and the perplexity of love.

    Circling around these characters, observing their bewilderment, Green makes each scene convey some aspect of American bafflement. He phases in and out of mystifying then mundane experiences as naturally as if shifting verses in a poem, always unafraid of creating poetic echoes and parallels. The kids talk seriously—like adults—and adults are as confused as kids. Green creates an intergenerational emotional harmony that makes the particular lives on view connect to all of ours. George Washington ­deliberately pursues the ample expressiveness of popular art even when it seems a bit obscure. Buddy is shown in a disused amphitheater wearing a dinosaur mask and performing a kind of elevated oration when Rico walks in, listens to him, and asks, “Is that the Bible or Shakespeare?”

    Looking sympathetically at the desperate lives of lost American youths, Green seeks his own method of commemorating them. He also includes reminiscences by disconcerted grown-ups—a scene of husband-wife intimacy; two women reaching across their individual senses of bereavement; George’s Uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse) disclosing his own childhood trauma; and George extending sympathy and understanding to his uncommunicative father sitting behind bars in jail (an homage to a similar scene in Martin Ritt’s Sounder). Green’s artistic, spiritual search amounts to nothing less than a rediscovery of the American soul. An intertitle that announces July 1 (not July 4) emphasizes the necessity of making just such a personal assessment of one’s social position, rethinking one’s connection to the national spiritual heritage. Vernon expresses this lonely quandary when he says, “I wish there was one belief, my belief. I wish there were two hundred of me.” Nasia’s faith comes through when she describes George’s potential to “lead nations and build back up from a broken land.” And George himself, dressing as a superhero to direct traffic and help his community, reveals his own optimism when he finally sits to get his portrait taken. It becomes part of a montage featuring vintage photos from American history. Green edits its rhythms to resemble the historical-­spiritual coda in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., but most significantly, he follows this with a sequence of silent fireworks that epitomizes the multi­cultural, multispiritual communication of the entire film. George Washington is a work of humbling, breathtaking beauty.

    Armond White’s film criticism has been published internationally. His collected pop culture criticism appears in the book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World. He is also the author of Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles, published by ResistanceWorks WDC. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD release of George Washington.

9 comments

  • By Matthew Bradley
    November 26, 2008
    01:08 PM

    George Washington is a world filled with decay. Society is progressing backwards due to the inability of the characters to even maintain the status quo. Adults act like children, and the kids try to fill the void of maturity. Animals fill a large part in the character’s lives. Not just traditional dogs and cats are present, but also ferrets and wildlife, too. A girl plays with a dove and another is fond of a crocodile mask. One character is so afraid of animals that he kills them on sight, afraid that they may surpass him in usefulness. Every time an animal appears, it defines the character interacting with them. George’s dog appears useless, but is full of love. The ferret appears when the characters are seeking out information about one another, and the crocodile/dinosaur mask ends up as a mark of extinction. In this film, no one wants to be themselves. One person preaches the benefits of a nutritious diet. One recites poetry, unable to come up with his own words. Some merely want escape, looking to change themselves from the very beginning. Though these events typically end in failure, the key is not necessarily success, but the idea, the drive for change. These characters lack the skills necessary to change their situation, or they try to change the wrong aspects of their lives. A healthier lifestyle will only make the characters more efficient at performing useless tasks, and escape will only present the same problems in a new setting. This is a society floating on the brink. With backwards characters confusing the needs of civilization, one character, George, realizing the problem and steps with into his role as the hero with gusto. It is his contributions that show that a small effort is all that is needed to push things in the right direction. After a cataclysmic event, he shows that the pendulum of life swings both ways. A destroyer can also be a creator. The depth of his character is what shines in this film, proving that anyone can make a difference.
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  • By Aldy Kusumah
    July 12, 2011
    03:03 PM

    This film provides a meditation on adulthood, poverty, love and death captured with a beautiful cinematography by David Gordon Green frequent collaborator, Tim Orr. Bleak tragedy on a coming-of-age tale is often one of the main ingredients for this kind of drama. Terence Malick references on the southern gothic genre like this is unmissable and profound.
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  • By Jake Jashni
    July 27, 2012
    07:24 PM

    A genuine review from Armond White, a rare find. Great film.
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  • By Gizmo
    March 12, 2014
    09:21 AM

    Armond White!? Really?
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    • By NAME
      March 12, 2014
      09:48 AM

      This dates back to before he became the troll we know and tolerate today.
  • By Jack Rivers
    March 12, 2014
    12:28 PM

    NAME, another Internet cowardly bully whose never done anything with his life.
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    • By Gord
      March 12, 2014
      05:42 PM

      NAME is pretty much spot on about Amond White of the last decade; contrarian for the sake of it. And whose being "a cowardly bully whose never done anything with his life", NAME or the person I'm quoting?
  • By Jack Rivers
    March 20, 2014
    12:23 AM

    Gord, you are the very definition of insanity. So many Internet cowards and bullies, like NAME and Gord, attack White because they cannot match his knowledge of film or his writing ability. Are you guys the Hoberman-Ebert clones that White exposed, or are you just Internet cowards and bullies? White's George Washington essay is just one of his many great pieces of film criticism. I like his original New York Press review of the film just as much. .
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    • By Bully the Cowardly Troll
      March 20, 2014
      01:30 AM

      Wow, the only bully here is you which I think was Gord's point. You should take a deep breath and relax. And unless he's your personal friend or family member it's just nutty to be so rude to strangers voicing an opinion about A. W. Only you used words like "coward" and "bully" while NAME called White a troll (really rather benign) and Gord exposed your hypocracy - pitiable.

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