Venice: Matt Damon Calls ‘Suburbicon’ “The Definition of White Privilege”

Dominique Charriau/WireImage
Matt Damon, George Clooney and Julianne Moore at 2017 Venice Film Festival

The star also called for a new president: "Anybody to be the next president of the United States, right away!"

George Clooney’s new film Suburbicon has its world premiere in Venice on Saturday night. The script, which Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov started working on during Donald Trump’s campaign, combines an old Coen Brothers script about murderous knuckleheads with the real-life story of the Myers family, an African-American family that faced constant race riots after moving into an all-white neighborhood in the 1950s.

In Suburbicon, Matt Damon plays a workingman whose life drastically changes after a home invasion goes terribly wrong. The once-quiet neighborhood is never the same, and everyone blames the African-American family who just moved in for the wave of violence. A fence is built around their home, and white neighbors begin to riot daily outside their property. Julianne Moore plays Damon’s wife, as well as her twin sister, and Noah Jupe plays his son. Oscar Isaac plays a curious insurance claims inspector, a role that Clooney was slated to play in the original Coen brothers script.

“The genesis of the screenplay started when I was watching a lot of speeches on the campaign trail about building fences and scapegoating minorities,” said Clooney in Venice. “I started looking around at other times in our history when we’ve unfortunately fallen back to these things. And I found this story that happened in Levittown, Pennslyvania.”

“The idea of juxtaposing these two was to say, you’re looking in the wrong direction if you’re blaming this African-American family for all your woes,” he said.  “Some of us are able to speak to the idea of white men feeling that they’re losing their privilege and blaming it all on minorities. And of course, it has nothing to do with that. We’ve seen it growing up.”

The filmmakers acknowledged the film, unfortunately, is as timely as ever. “It’s kind of the definition of white privilege when you’re riding around your neighborhood on a bicycle covered in blood murdering people and the African-American family is getting blamed for it,” said Damon. “We couldn’t have predicted obviously when we were filming these race riots that we would have something like Charlottesville. It does speak to the fact that these issues have not and are not going away until there’s an honest reckoning in our country.”

For Clooney, the film is really about restitution. “I grew up in the ‘South in the ‘60s and ‘70s during the civil rights movement. Segregation was going away,” he said. “We thought we were putting these issues to bed. And of course we weren’t. And we had these eruptions that blew up every few years. And we realized that we still have a lot of work to do from our original sin of slavery and racism.”

“This isn’t a movie about Donald Trump. This is a movie about our coming to terms constantly with the idea that we have never addressed our issues of race fully. We’ve tried,” said Clooney. “It is a big part of our history and it will be a part of our history for a long period of time.”

While many reactions to the film were reactions of anger, out of seeing little difference between the ‘50s riots shown on screen and the race riots shown on TV now, Clooney said that anger was the point. “It is an angry film,” he said. “If you go to our country, depending on which side of the aisle you sit on, it’s probably the angriest I’ve ever seen the country, and I lived through the Watergate period of time. There’s a dark cloud hanging over our country right now.”

“But people are angry,” he continued. “A lot of us are angry, angry at ourselves, angry at the way the country is going, and angry at the way the world is going. This seems to reflect that. I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a fair thing to do. We didn’t want this to just be this polemic that’s a civics lesson. We wanted it to be funny. We wanted it to be mean. But it certainly got angry and it got angrier as we were shooting.”

Clooney focuses the film through the eyes of a child, however, as a message of hope in the next generation. “We felt that these two boys have just been through the worst nights of their lives, and they’re going to be OK,” he said. “I’m an optimist. I do believe in the youth and I do believe that we’re going to get through all these things. The institutions of the U.S. government tend to work, we see it work with the press and we see it work with the legislative and the judicial branches of the government.”

For Moore, she believes change begins with everyone. “When people talk about will younger generations be better, make better choices, be more ethical, be more egalitarian, we always say every generation says yes. The only way they will be is if the generation before them is doing that as well," said Moore, bringing the conversation to the current fight over removing Confederate monuments in the U.S.

“They must be removed. You simply cannot have these figures from the Civil War in town squares and in universities for our children to see. As a parent and as a citizen, I need to be active in the eradication of those, in the re-education of everyone,” she said. “We have to take responsibility for it. We can’t just say the next generation will do it.”

“This is something that's really festering right now in the United States, talking about the Confederate flag and the Jefferson Davis monuments,” said Clooney, who made use of Confederate imagery in the film.

He said that growing up in Kentucky, he participated in Civil War reenactments. “You didn’t really understand the history of the Confederate flag, and understand that that was a flag that was designed to carry into battle against the United States of America in favor of slavery. And they lost,” he said. “Now, if you want to wear it on your T-shirt or if you want to hang it off of your front lawn, have at it. Good luck with your neighbors. But to hang it on a public building, where partially African-American tax-payers are paying for it, a symbol of hate, that cannot stand. And we have to come to terms with those things.”

Asked if Clooney has changed his mind about entering into politics, he responded sarcastically: “Would I like to be the next president? Oh, that sounds like fun.” 

“Can I just say,” added Damon, “I’d like anybody to be the next president of the United States, right away!”