‘Mudbound’ masterfully shows that mere kindness can’t bring down systemic hate
Black lives matter until they’re not useful anymore. Black hands matter, that’s for sure. They make music for white people to listen, cultivate the land that gives them money. It’s not black lives that matter as such — it’s black bodies, bodies that can serve. The disabled black body is not one worth respecting. But even worse is when the black voice becomes louder than the sounds of the shovels hitting the ground or the slaughter of the beasts of the farm. Silence is not a choice — it’s survival.
Mudbound thrives on monologues rather than conversations. We are led from one character’s thoughts to the next’s, becoming involuntary poetic narrators. They can only speak to themselves, too aware of the damage that a wrong word out of their mouth could cause. It’s too scary, too unpredictable. At least, when they think, they don’t have to please or make sense to anyone but themselves. As viewers, we’re constantly surrounded by their words. It’s easy to forget how utterly quiet this world really is.
There are hints of rebellion in everyone. The most subtle ones are in the women of the film, the ones that look the most like outsiders on their own land, in their own houses. When Ronsel gives his mother a chocolate bar, he has to force her to not save it for later or give it to his younger siblings. These are people that have been used to giving, giving, and giving again, always be ready for the worst and turn that worst into a new home if needed.
Being ready for the worst is a thing that Ronsel and Jamie had in common during many years. One is a pilot, the other a sergeant, but in the long run titles aren’t what matters. They’ve both seen death from way too close and caused way too many. While their experiences are similar, the two don’t react the same way. Jamie is confronted with a violence he had never envisioned. He’ll deal with it in his own way — mostly questionable self-medication through alcohol. He’s always been protected. When the safe walls around him finally fall down, he’s more alone than he’s ever been.
Ronsel, however, finds peace amongst the bombs. The film’s portrayal of Europe as a practically racism free land is of course grossly exaggerated, but it remains entirely plausible that he would find some sort of haven in the constant action of the war. Mississippi was so silent it became suffocating. Here, there’s pain too, but it never tries the fact that it is. People scream when they’re killed, cry when they’re sad, cheer when they’re happy. There’s no hiding there. Just life in its rawest form.
The changes that the two young men undergo during their years in the war allow them to meet in the middle once they come back. Mississippi has never felt this alien. Everything is brown or grey. Even the sun doesn’t feel brave enough to fight the constant rain. It was easy enough to pretend to be happy in Marietta when they didn’t know anything else. Now, they’re the only ones who can understand each other.
Even as they slowly find fellowship in one another, some barriers truly can’t be brought down. When Jamie playfully pretends to try to run over Ronsel with his car, he doesn’t stop laughing to see the genuine fear in his friend’s eyes. Turning trauma into games is something only the untraumatized can allow themselves; and in the context of racism, it is still unfortunately painfully relevant. A viral scene from Netflix’s Queer Eye last year showed a police officer pretending to arrest Karamo, the only black cast member. What was terrifying for one was a joke to the other. In Mudbound, despite having his best intentions, Jamie truly understands the reality of black suffering much too late.
Just like the Jackson kids playing on the porch mimicking what they think is war reflects their complete lack of understanding on the matter, none of the white characters of the film, even the most well-intentioned, can understand the extent of black oppression. Even if Laura and Florence slowly bond over their status as wives and mothers, the power imbalance remains impossible to erase. This is not a film that will end with everyone holding their neighbour’s hand and realizing they’re not so different after all. Violence is a non-negotiable. The scariest thing about Mudbound is not the lack of humanity that its worst characters openly exhibit; it is how pervasive a system of hate can become, and how painfully relevant it still is to today’s times. There will hopefully come a day where we don’t need to tell these stories so often anymore, but as far as these type of films go, Mudbound is unmistakably one of the most essential.
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