George Washington (2000)
Written & Directed by David Gordon Green
I have noticed in these reviews for the Visions of the American South series that few of the directors are actually from the region. Only Billy Bob Thornton and David Gordon Green are actually from the areas where their films take place. Because of that, I think these are the most naturalistic movies. That doesn’t mean they aren’t made with a stylistic flourish. In the case of George Washington, the film is almost like a visual poem. George Washington is also the first film in our series to prominently feature Black characters.
A group of kids lives in the hollowed-out shell of an economically depressed small town in North Carolina. They wander through industrial ruins overtaken by nature. The story is narrated by 12-year-old Nasia, a girl who has broken up with her boyfriend Buddy and becomes interested in the shy, introverted George. George’s skull never fused when he was a baby, and so he has to wear a helmet and avoid getting his head wet lest it swells up and causes immense pain. A tragedy strikes that leave this group of friends unsure of what to do next. George feels a need to be heroic to make up for his role in the horrible thing, and the rest of his pals twist & turn in the wind.
The way Green chooses to present his story visually says a lot about the intent. The opening sequence is gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Tim Orr, probably some of the best of the early 2000s. The use of slow-motion and the color grading of the images powerfully evokes a feeling of nostalgia, memory. Because the film is narrated in the past tense by Nasia, we feel like we’re going back to an eventful summer where the details are hazy, but the emotions are palpable.
There are many references to Americana throughout the picture, starting with the protagonist’s name. George Richardson is the character, but Green titles his film George Washington. There’s a scene near the end of the picture where George poses for a vintage sepia-toned photograph in his best suit. The voiceover has Nasia pondering what George could be when he gets older, including President of the United States. We are meant to see the unspoken history that exists as the foundation of this place and time. The ruins of those factories & buildings hint at a more prosperous era that has passed.
George Washington is a postindustrial film, a chronicle of the fallout of trade being moved out of the United States for cheaper, more easily exploitable labor. The adults we see work menial jobs, mostly sitting around in the oppressive summer heat. Trains pass through their town, but they are stationary. There’s a lot of talk about escaping this dead-end place, but we only see two people leave, and one of them does it by dying. The adults & children are all equally dazed and confused. One man cannot escape his fear of dogs that developed when he was a child and causes him to revile them in the present day. The shackles of the past stop this town’s residents from moving too far from their starting point.
There is a mythopoetic quality to the entire picture, a feeling that while the characters and setting are incredibly intimate, isolated, and run down that the themes are epic and universal. Green wonders if someone of earthshaking importance can rise up out of such a nowhere place. Are George’s aspirations and Nasia’s infatuations just the daydreams of kids, or are they more potent than that? The picture ends over vintage images of Black people at the turn of the last century and fireworks, a Fourth of July staple, the date the film ends. We are left to ruminate on these questions Green has presented us with, questioning if the American Dream still lives or ever was real in the first place.