Last weekend, I decided to sit down and watch two films in light of the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement. One was Steve McQueen’s 2013 Best Picture Winner 12 Years A Slave. It was my second watch after seeing it in theatres The other was a 2017 film called Mudbound. The latter is directed by Dee Rees (Pariah, The Last thing He Wanted) and is actually based off a 2008 book of the same name by Hillary Jordan. It was a film that I had unintentionally overlooked while counting down to the Oscar race two years ago. I mean, Mudbound was competing against the likes of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, and Lady Bird (2017 was pretty great, you know).
Mudbound focuses on two distinct families residing on farmland in the state of Mississippi. One white. One black. The former, the McAllans, are newcomers to the vicinity as Henry, played by Jason Clarke (Pet Sematary, Everest) chugs his family along to fulfil his dream of tilling the soil. On the other hand, the longtime tenants of the land, led by Rob Morgan’s (Just Mercy, Bull) Hap, are sharecroppers who had been living on the plot for generations.
The film opens with an America staring at the harsh, bitterness of war in 1941. Pearl Harbour had just experienced a shelling. Subsequently, the fine young men of the country were sent to face down the Axis powers. Regardless of background, a multitude of able-bodied lads signed up to serve their country.
4 cycles pass.
Enter our battle-weary heroes, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). The war had been won. Hitler had been defeated. The lads, tired and relieved, retreat back to normalcy in the country. Back to the comfort of their families.
By the time D-Day made waves back in America, the valiant efforts of Harriet Tubman along the Underground Railroad were almost a century old. Slavery had been abolished and a few generations of African-Americans had experienced freedom. However, was America itself actually free?
The film’s setting harks back to a time when racial segregation was the norm. Yup, buses were a commodity for everyone. Yet, the definition of where one particular ethnicity could or could not sit was delineated. Shops with “Whites only” stamped above their concrete brows dotted the landscape of the town. Never mind the global battle, the ceaseless caws of Jim Crow had been embedded deep within a society which had been fighting a silenced internal war. It was a mold. One that society had been gorging down for ages, never truly questioning the sensibility of such.
The townsfolk did not give a damn whether you were a sergeant, a corporal, a U.S. Secretary of State, or the President of the United States. As long as you had melanin, you were of an inferior class. The sickening affliction begins the instance Ronsel sets foot in the town. Mind his own business, he did, as he obtained sweet gifts for his little siblings. Like hyenas stalking their prey, the bigots enter, licking their lips as they set their dumbfounded icy gazes on Ronsel. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, they gang up on the sergeant, gnashing at his will to walk out the front door. It is difficult to believe that something as trivial as stepping out the main entrance would garner an escalation, yet it happened. In order to avoid unnecessary scuffle, compliance with the “superior” brethren had to be made.
Over the course of the movie, Ronsel and Jamie manage to bond due to them sharing similar experiences in the force. Both of them endure PTSD spells which they spill out to each other; Jamie instinctively crashes to the floor at the gunfire-emulating pop of exhaust, and Ronsel himself trembles of shell-shock. Indeed, their time in the field had changed them. They’d lost friends, close ones, yet they relished their service on the frontlines. Nevertheless, one particular piece of dialogue between the two stuck out the most.
“Over there I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us. Throwing flowers and cheering. And here I’m just another nigger pushing a plough.”
Ronsel’s musings might have come from a place of unacceptance. However, digging deeper, it’s an even more poignant circumstance. The fact that his notion of acceptance and freedom came from elsewhere, close to the battlefield, a place where the Grim Reaper was biding his time, was disturbing. It was tragic that he could not find solace in his own home. The people of the town were too caught up in their daily affairs to take note of the social disparity and had simply carried on with their norm throughout the war.
Then there’s Jamie, who the movie sets up as Ronsel’s saviour. He’s been overcome by guilt and has been repentant ever since he was saved by a black man on the field. That wave of acknowledgement from the other cockpit stirred up a personal mission for him to be a better man. Back in Mississippi, Jamie attempts to make amends by standing up and helping Ronsel whenever he could. He offers rides so that Jamie did not have to walk the miles to get home.
Nevertheless, all of his goodwill is ruined by the movie’s harrowing end when Ronsel is captured by the KKK. At that point in time, the white knight is struck down for standing up to supremacy. He is forced to make the ultimate choice of mutilating his friend in order to let him live or watch him die instead. Jamie chooses the former, rendering his friend a mute for the rest of his life.
Mudbound ends on a particularly sad note. Such scenes may be deemed an exaggeration nowadays, extreme terror at its finest. We may not commonly experience the same amount of prejudice and self-acclaimed racial privilege that used to plague those eras. However, if we take some time to actually glance at the little details of some of our actions now, are they so different?
Just like the movie, societal norms are already in motion at this very moment. They’ve been established for ages. Unless you are living on your own plot of land, isolated away in the hills, there will always be some form of interaction with other individuals of various backgrounds. However, do we actually stop to think about how we treat others who might not share the same skin? Are there any prejudices against such?
The recent events encircling George Floyd’s tragic death have generated a variety of sentiments. The tagline above has been a sensational rally cry for the widespread protests across the 50 states. The rest of the world has also bowed down in solidarity of the tragedy. Many have voiced out their experiences not just on unfair treatment, but the racism that has been seen as socially acceptable for decades. It could be ungracious black-face mocks or boogeyman affiliations that have suffocated certain members of the community. Jokes that have been done in poor taste have been called out as unprogressive.
People are becoming more aware of how institutionalised racism has been eating away at our society. Indeed, the recent turn of events, while having sparked from a tragedy, may have actually been a great leap for societal changes. Many individuals are who have seen the err of erstwhile practices are finally speaking up. They are standing against systemic racism and yet, these very individuals can still be seen as heretics by certain oppositional forces within the community. And why is that? It’s due to the resistance to change.
I get it, it’s not easy to alter the collective mindset of a community. It’s not easy to uproot years and decades of what has essentially become a tradition to some. Regardless, human rights aren’t subjective. Everyone deserves respect, regardless of the colour of their skin. Everyone should feel safe in his own neighbourhood. Safe from public scrutiny. Safe from unfair arrests. Indeed, the full gravity of #BlackLivesMatter has to be comprehended… By all.
Mudbound may not share the same satirical intensity of Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, or share the same brutal scenes of slavery every 20 minutes in 12 Years A Slave or Harriet. It may not be able to explore the social injustice of a coloured family living in America as portrayed in The Hate U Give. However, Mudbound’s message of a complacent society is clear. People are hurting. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to feel respected within society. So, how much longer can it wait?
If you look at the way social justice has been playing out, the reason they’ve been impassioned and fiery is due to a demand for change. Dire circumstances have fallen to deaf ears. The situation has lingered and stagnated for far too long, flowing at a snail’s pace, just like mud. Now, just how much water are we willing to drench on these unstable grounds in order to get them moving? How much longer do we need to wait for reforms to happen?