Warning: the following article includes plot spoilers for Mudbound (2017).
War alludes to destruction and death is ubiquitous on the battlefield. World War II effectuated deaths of millions and the gravity of horrors spread across the world is beyond human perspicacity. However, what if something as grotesque as the war bequeathed a fleeting relief to a person whose entire life was tyrannized by unseen, underlying, but omnipresent hatred?
Dee Rees’ Mudbound acts a formidable critique of racism by drawing an analogy between a noxious battleground in war-torn Europe and a quiet farm in Mississippi, USA. Unlike the battleground, where the menace and distress are thoroughly physical, back in the farm, the infliction of pain is majorly cerebral. Mississippi is no stranger to racism-based films. Films such as Mississippi Burning, Free State of Jones, Freedom Song, and Ghosts of Mississippi, among others, have been equally vocal about racism.
“But perhaps the most tragic manifestation of racist sentiment in Mississippi is silent. Built into the very bones of this place.”
Jesmyn Ward; The Atlantic
Mudbound addresses this profoundly imbibed racialist frame of mind that’s futile, purposeless, and barbaric. The title says it all. The discrimination is in the land. Owing to this fact, when Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), a young black man, leaves his home to fight on his country’s side in WW2, he experiences freedom from dogmatism. War catalyses Ronsel’s angst while the aftermath accentuates the contradistinction pertaining to American blacks.
Mudbound’s antithesis on the portrayal of war is staggering although the war by itself comprises only a teeny portion in the film’s runtime. The first half of the film builds up towards the end of the war, giving us only flashes of the battle, blood, and the chaos that unravel in the battlefield, while the preponderance of the narrative is set in the farm where Ronsel’s family works for the white McAllen family, spearheaded by Henry (Jason Clarke).
The second half unweaves the ugliness of the racism backed by war at its center. In one particular sequence in the middle act, the film blurs the line between war and home by amalgamating two separate events. First, capturing Ronsel’s fear from a deadly battlefield that is being bombed. Second, his father Hap’s (Rob Morgan) pain as he falls down and breaks a leg. When put together, the sequence encapsulates how equally painful his family’s life is in serene farmland as his in deadly war ground.
Parallels: Pain & Fear
The Jackson family is perpetually at war with the McAllen family. Their war is not with the McAllen’s, but with the deeply rooted bigotry in them. His family lives in a state of oppression; Ronsel is freeing the oppressed on the other side of the globe. Their livelihood is hard. Ronsel’s life is at stake. However, Ronsel has something which neither his father nor grandfather have ever experienced – honour.
Racism is non-existent in war while Rosel and his family’s entire existence is conditioned to oblige that their lives are frivolous. Hap recalls how his parents and grandparents lived and died working for a land that they could never own, how four white men snatched away his uncle’s farm. Ronsel’s mother, Florence (Mary J. Blige), at one point has to aid the McAllens when their two young daughters fall sick with whooping cough, at the expense of leaving her own children at home. She discerns her actions are echoing her mother’s, who was supposedly a maid in a white household, when Florence was a child. Florence recalls how her mother would leave them before she and her siblings would wake, just to wake up the children she is serving. She realises that her mother’s love for the master’s children ensured her own children’s survival.
The prejudice is rooted so deep that Ronsel’s standpoint in the social strata returns back to the oppressed in the homeland from being the liberator of the oppressed in a land far from home. As he returns as a war-hero after four years, he runs into the oldest member of the McAllen family, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), who straightaway evokes Ronsel’s ‘place’. Ronsel experiences racism first, and then meets his family, thus making him feel at home. It’s a despairing yet unambiguous representation. One war ends and another begins. Unlike the actual war, where he was equipped with weaponry and the enemy was visible, here the enemy is not a person or weapon, but an invisible psychology, and sadly, Ronsel is bare-handed.
Pappy McAllen is a symbol of racism, a manifestation of the horrifying history, representing everything wrong with hate. He despises the Jacksons, refusing to sit beside Hap in a car and forcing Ronsel to apologise for a heated but well-meant reply in the supermarket. As Henry asks Ronsel to apologise to Pappy, Hap further insists his son to apologise citing they should not do something like that. This furthers the film’s point of systemic conditioning to accept their low standard.
On the other hand, Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund), the younger brother of Henry, also a soldier, remains the representation of empathy in the cruel homeland. He is the only person who understands and exhibits kindness to Ronsel. It is plausible that his tenderness is attributed to exposure to the brutal war and world. Was he as spiteful as his brother and father before the war? We don’t know, but what matters is his present kinder self that comforts a torn Ronsel. Interestingly, during their first interaction, Ronsel is wearing white and Jamie is dressed in black, highlighting Jamie’s contrary to the norms. But there is still a thin line separating them, called society.
Contrariety yet camaraderie
At a point, even Ronsel wonders why Jamie is being kind to him. He learns that witnessing horrors of war and fighting a common enemy shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow soldiers relinquishes dividers such as racism, which people like Pappy – who like Ronsel rightly points out was resting harmlessly at home while he was fighting a war – can never apprehend.
However, Ronsel’s and Jamie’s friendship is almost an illicit relation of sorts, garnering eye-balls and burbles from people around, suggesting the social conditions that prevailed in the ’40s. Towards the end, their friendship draws flak from the futile hate, mounting into vile consequences as the loathsome Pappy and his fellow men cut out Ronsel’s tongue. This in a way, is illustrative of silencing the voices, mashing their attempts to resist the inequality.
On contemplating, I felt the war was the most comforting time in Ronsel’s life. On the battlefield, he felt empowered and freed, found love, and most importantly, he remained unhurt to a large extent, both physically and mentally. On the other hand, he is tormented – both literally and figuratively – in his homeland just for being himself. For someone like him, whose entire life was an internal war struggling to ascertain his position in the social spectrum, the actual war gifted freedom for some time. In the end, Ronsel chooses to leave America to travel back to Europe – once a battlefield – to spend the rest of his life with the German woman he fell in love with during the war and their son. The war, indeed, vouchsafed him a second life; a better one.
To end it, I’ll have to converge back to the opening scene of the film, which perhaps makes greater sense when seen as the culmination. Pappy is dead and his sons dig a grave, only to find that it’s a slave’s grave where slaves murdered years ago were buried. Although Henry – whose ideology resembles Pappy’s – asserts they dig another grave, they have to resort to burying him in the slave’s grave as the rain hinders them. Pappy ends up beside the people he loathed, because regardless of what one stands for, everyone is bound to mud, sooner or later. So, why the fatuous hate? Mudbound answers this and it’s an answer to bear in mind for a lifetime.