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George Washington

      He didn't attend fashionable NYU, USC, or UCLA, but took film classes, and made undergraduate shorts, at the off-the-charts North Carolina School of the Arts. But David Gordon Green, only 24, did something superbly right, for his first independent feature, George Washington blows every Hollywood film this year into the Pacific. Made by a white Southerner with a mostly African-American cast, George Washington was one of but two American movies chosen this year for the prestigious New York Film Festival. For me, it stand alongside another original indie, Chuck and Buck, for the Best American Film of 2000.

     Green's lovely, affecting story takes place in a kind of mythic rural Southern town under a sleepy sun, ideal for a late-afternoon July nap. There, Green's camera floats among a dozen denizens of this town, some white but mostly poor African-American youth, though their economic status has nothing to do with their spirited conversations, about love and family and pets and aspirations. The most articulate, willful, charismatic of these almost-teen kids is Nasia (Candace Evanofski). She breaks the sensitive heart of little bespectacled Buddy (Curtis Cotton, III), who loves her deeply, by offering her affections to the monosyllabic, barely social, George (Donald Holden). However, George looks past girls: he wants to be an American hero, like Superman. He plans to be an American president, like the titular Mr. Washington.

     Green's cast are local North Carolina kids, amateurs, and they are simply spectacular: they won an ensemble Best Acting Award at the Newport Film Festival. What's fascinating is how they talk: Green trusted his pre-adolescents with poetic, literary, highly self-conscious dialogue. The anti-realism is conceptual, as Green means his tale to take place in a kind of idyllic wonderland, where people of various races are so aborbed in conversation that they never notice skin color, and where adults and children chat as equals, without caring an iota about age difference.

     Will anyone come see George Washington? What separates it so obviously from most other feature films about African-Americans (Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger are exceptions) is its To Kill a Mockingbird-like civility and gentleness. There's little profanity, no sex, and only one death, though that one is harsh and felt.

     Several admiring critics have dared compare Green's personal terrain to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Maybe so. When I talked to George Washington's modest, soft-spoken filmmaker at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I told him how much his cut-off-from-the-world juvenile cast made me think of Charles M. Schultz. Happily, he agreed. "Peanuts was a great influence," he said, and listened politely while I theorized that Buddy loves Nasia, Nasia loves George is an African-American analogue to Charlie Brown-Lucy-Schroeder.

    Then we talked about his casting. "I auditioned a lot of professionals who could memorize lines and hit their marks. But they weren't right. A barber let me hang out while he gave haircuts to kids. We'd talk about movies, animals, sports, I didn't tell them that I was recording their conversations. My actors are playing characters, but they bring a lot of comedy and drama from their own lives. We decided to stay away from hip-hop ethnic images. They've been overdone."

     Donald Holden, who plays George? "I was hanging out on a beach in Wilmington, and someone in my crew was talking to this kid who had a pretty nutty view of life. He said, 'I want to be the first black president,' but he said it in such a dispassionate way that I was intrigued. It turns out that he's not like the character he plays. He's much more energetic. He'll bounce off walls, and talk about getting girls. He was 12, but very mature."

     His setting? "I wanted it to take place at any time, from the '30s to the present. A power of movies: I could design my own atmosphere, an undiscovered territory, where there were no billboards, no authority figures, no police, no calling 911. The place, though in North Carolina, looks like a lot of railroad towns in Texas that I spent time in, a racist redneck part of the state. But the feel is urban: I grew up in Dallas, in a multi-ethnic neighborhood where, until junior high, race was never more than a fleeting thought, where we hung out with people we liked.

     "I refer to George Washington as a color-blind or age-blind films. It's not 'realistic,' but that is intentional. When we shot, we all lived together, twenty people, kids and crew, in a six-bedroom house. I needed people who would work for free, and everyone's salary is deferred. We've sold the film to France, so I paid the investors back. Nobody else had seen a dime. Maybe some day!"

     And maybe some day, George, a poor African-American, will occupy the White House, like a privileged George Bush. "This movie says you can," says Green. "I didn't intend it to be depressing. George can be President, and he can live to be a 100 years old."

(August, 2000)

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