There’s a moment in Mudbound when Jason Mitchell’s character, Ronsel, returns home from World War II and tries to purchase groceries for his family. As he attempts to exit through the front door of the store, he’s confronted by two white men, who tell him to exit through the back. He’s a man who just fought in the war to protect the lives of these white men—though they falsely insist he was nowhere near the front lines—and the life he returns to in rural Mississippi is the same one he grew up with. He was a man taught to never to back down from a fight while behind enemy lines but now that he’s home in the “land of the free,” reacting with anger to racist white men proves a daily threat on his life.
There are many themes in Dee Rees’ beautifully rendered film Mudbound, which debuted on Netflix on Friday. But there are none more prescient, more timely than the ones that parallel the America we currently inhabit. It’s a reminder that calls to “Make America Great Again,” when Americans were filled with post-WWII patriotic zeal, are calls to return us to a time when the most patriotic black Americans weren’t given the respect of their fellow white citizens.
As Rees told The Daily Beast at Sundance: “I keep going back to this idea of fighting on multiple fronts, and for us, my wife and I had marched on [Trump’s] Inauguration Day in D.C., January 20th. We felt it important to be visible, to be vocal, to not buy into a peaceful transition narrative, and to say what’s true. It was great to protest in D.C. on Inauguration Day and then fly to Sundance the next day and this film is like fighting another front, in a way. Culture—art, music, literature—is the long game, because it’s the way to change people’s ideas in a more personal way.”
The film examines these themes by juxtaposing the black Jackson family and the white McAllan clan, who owns the land they live on and rents part of it to them as tenant farmers. It shows that even in the post-slavery world of the South, black labor was still au courant and black people often had to sacrifice their own lives to care for white families. Mary J. Blige’s Florence exhibits this as she struggles to manage her own children and husband, who’s suffering from an injury, but is instead called upon to nurse Laura McAllan’s (Carey Mulligan) sick children. She also reminds us what she learned from her mother: that her very life depended on making sure the white children in her care did not die.
It’s a necessary film that depicts the hardships so many black Americans endured post-emancipation. It’s a treacherous world where black upward mobility depends on the whims of whiteness because of the racist social structures that have been in place since slavery.
Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie McAllan is a character we’re able to see break this mold. He ends up drafted into the Army with Ronsel Jackson. While Ronsel is fighting fascism on the ground, Jamie is doing it in the skies, so their paths don’t cross during the war. The two men meet when they both return home to their families. Jamie immediately befriends Ronsel because he’s the only person who understands what he went through during the war, and the crippling PTSD he suffers from now. Ronsel feels comfortable around him as well—not only because of their shared wartime experiences, but because Jamie sees him as an equal. They both put their lives on the line to protect America during the war, so why wouldn’t they be?
But Mudbound is not a film with easy answers. Ronsel’s best-friendship with Jamie seems like it might make life in the Deep South easier for him, but the America he finds himself navigating is unrelenting in its quest to dehumanize him. The Klan exists, as it does still in America, and these white-hooded demons don’t very much enjoy the friendship between these two men, seeking to destroy it at every turn. But it’s Ronsel’s relationship with a white woman in Germany during the war that gives racists in their community the ammunition to destroy his life. It turns out that his only refuge may be back in Europe—a difficult choice faced by many black writers during that time, including James Baldwin. It’s a sad reality: that as some seek to make America what it once was, black Americans may have to return to an expatriate life—the only one that ensures their survival.