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As we continue to live through an American society ripped apart by race, it’s refreshing to look back on the time that a young white filmmaker from the south made a movie with a largely black, non-professional cast of children, without a hint of pretension. In “George Washington,” David Gordon Green doesn’t depict these children as obvious victims of social injustice, nor does he incorporate the usual stereotypical themes that would be expected from a white writer-director telling stories about working class African Americans in the Deep South. Instead, mining the eccentricity of Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” Green shows their daily lives during one summer with lucidity and compassion, under the shadow of the elder George Bush’s presidency.
“George Washington” may lack a conventional plot, but it does have a motif: The movie explores how impoverished African American children see the world, the kind of opportunities it has for them, and how they’re affected by socioeconomic and cultural pressures.
There’s George (Donald Holden), a 13-year-old fan of superman, who has to wear a football helmet because of a head injury. His friend Nasia (Candace Evanofski) narrates the film, establishing a poetic context for the evolving story. Nasia believes George is destined for greatness, although the narrowness of the world experience available to these kids, informs how limited they envision their potential: She thinks that George could one day lead some kind of parade.
And finally there’s Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), who Nasia dumps at the start of the film, because she finds him immature. “Can I kiss you one last time?” Buddy asks Nasia, who solemnly responds with a question of her own: “Do you love me?” It’s an adorable, rousing interaction that establishes the tone of the film to come.
The dialogue between these children throughout is not exactly everyday conversation; instead, Green favors a heightened quality that suggests a maturity beyond their years — they excel at articulating their emotions and ideas every step of the way.
The film is composed of sequences, mostly conversations, often set amid the corroding debris of a decomposing southern industrial town. Green’s familiarity with the film’s terrain comes through in the interactions between townspeople who live just to get by and not much more. Watching the film, it’s clear that this was a story that he had been wanting to tell for quite a while.
But what kind of story is it? Little happens in “George Washington,” beyond an accidental death that is of consequence for all the characters, a near-drowning, and a July 4th parade. Except for occasional pop culture references to movies and a photo of Bush hanging on a wall, the film never really connects its characters to the outside world. Instead, Green immerses the audience in the lives of the kids, capturing their world as they participate in it.
Green handles this portrait in such a muted fashion that audiences may feel like voyeurs. With his cinematographer, Tim Orr, the filmmaker crafts beautiful widescreen tapestries, setting the drama against gorgeous landscapes. Few movies centered on the lives of African American youth have filmed their actors and their surroundings as warmly as they do – a quality that confers a gravitas on the movie’s humble style. It centers on the stories of children, but “George Washington” is very far from a children’s’ movie.
Yet adults — authority figures — have been largely relegated to the sidelines, as the kids try to make sense of themselves and their relationships. There is no character in the film with the name George Washington, but it aims to be about things basically American, through the lens of people discovering America on the basis of their surroundings.
While the film’s title is never explained, it speaks to the character George’s own aspirations and how he sees himself in the world. And although George — like other forgotten African American youth — might be burdened by the various devastating legacies of slavery, he continues to aspire to greatness.
Historically, the film industry hasn’t presented images of black people as fully realized human beings. Certainly at the time of the film’s release, a year when “Big Momma’s House” was the top grossing film ($117.5 million) with a majority black cast, buzzwords like “diversity” were barely in the Hollywood lexicon, and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was a good 15 years away.
However unintentional, Green’s film registers as a reaction to this cultural calamity. Instead of depicting the children as simply black versions of white children seen in similar films, or resorting to stereotypes, he endows their youthful American experiences with an innocent resilience, one that has universal resonance. It’s not often that a film overcomes the separation between the racial and economic experience in America.
Ultimately, “George Washington” examines ideas that adults generally don’t think much about: that children see their decision-making to be just as rife with ethical ramifications, and are just as profound for them, as they are for the “serious” philosophical, moral and political dilemmas that adults engage with, and sometimes even avoid.
Two decades have passed since “George Washington” became a sleeper hit on the festival circuit, and since then, he has evolved into a very different sort of filmmaker. Though films like “Undertow” and “All the Real Girls” had a similar kind of southern gothic poetry, he never quite returned to this milieu, and nothing else he’s done matches the fluent and meditative originality of his debut. Once he turned to studio comedies and franchises like the recent “Halloween” reboot, he pretty much abandoned it altogether.
And so “George Washington” still very much remains its own thing, even though it was compared to the films of Terrence Malick, specifically the lyricism of “Days of Heaven.” Green himself said at the time that he was inspired by Malick’s work, and Malick himself agreed, coming onboard to produce Green’s third feature, “Undertow.” However, there’s a reason why Green never made another movie quite like this one. “George Washington” works on its own terms: It’s such a singular, beautiful, bittersweet, coming-of-age film, with a strong sense of life, and nothing about it can be duplicated.
“George Washington” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.