Mudbound Vs. the Underground Effect: It’s Time for the Spectacle of Black Suffering to Evolve
These are dangerous times to continue insisting that Black suffering is eternal... and admirable.Movies Features Mudbound
In critiquing a 1958 film starring Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin once declared that, more often than not, black characters exist in film “to reassure white people, to make them know that they’re not hated.” Mudbound is unfortunate proof that this statement remains true.
Now before you sharpen your pens and emojis to eviscerate me for what already sounds like a takedown of one of the most anticipated and celebrated films of the year, please know that I write this believing that I am one of at least 87 women who watched Pariah, and bore witness to that unforgettable opening featuring Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” playing in a dimly lit strip club and knew that Dee Rees was one of the best things to happen to film. I write this believing that there’s a particular group of women who, at any given day, think about the reverse paper bag test scene in Rees’ Bessie and smile warmly to themselves because there are some films that are such a marvel just thinking that you live in a place and time where that film exists makes you feel a little safer in this world. Perhaps more importantly, Dee Rees has made films that make you (you, as in you black women reading this now) feel that, as bold as you are, you should be bolder—bold enough to pursue your writing dreams in spite of a family with other plans for you (like Alike in Pariah), bold enough to live as queerly and freely as you possibly can (like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey in Bessie). If you’re a black woman Dee Rees is a hero for bringing such narratives into existence, and for daring other creatives to do the same. And it’s for this reason that it physically pains me—I’m literally wincing as I write this—to say that Mudbound is a huge disappointment for those of us expecting another powerful Dee Rees-style presentation of black lives and black womanhood.
Now, for what it means to do, and as a dramatic film, Mudbound is mostly a success. In the film, Rees presents an unflinching portrait of life on a farm in Mississippi for two families, the white McAllans and the Black Jacksons. Set during the Second World War, Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams (who adapted Hillary Jordan’s novel together) capture the traumatic effects of war, and American life in the South, particularly for Blacks, but also for whites living in poverty or with limited resources. Rees has a superb style, and, as with Pariah and Bessie, knows how to present strikingly beautiful images of her subjects (in this case, both the people and the land they live and toil on) without romanticizing their stories. Mudbound’s gorgeous cinematography however, doesn’t take the sting off the unpleasantness inherent to the story. Dee Rees has made a hard, harsh film, but with the kind of ending critics and awards influencers will surely deem “hopeful,” perhaps in an attempt to qualify what is truly a horror story. And it’s a horror story we’ve seen before, time and time again, with seemingly little variation. At least that was the case, before Underground came along.
It’s important to stress that Rees’ portrait of America, as a horrifying place for poor blacks and a difficult terrain for working poor whites, or white soldiers with PTSD, would fit perfectly in with a world pre-Underground. For example, films like 12 Years a Slave and The Help made a little more sense a few years back, but I was of the belief, perhaps mistakenly, that times had changed and that audiences would be demanding more from historical dramas about Blacks in America. For those of you unfortunate souls who were not able to experience the hit WGN series from Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, Underground made the bold choice to present enslaved Blacks with more agency and humanity than perhaps any other work in film or TV prior. Like Django Unchained, it often functioned as a revenge narrative, which meant that instead of sitting through an onslaught of images depicting only violence against Blacks, we were privy to scenes where Blacks fought back. Unlike Django, black characters (like Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee and Aldis Hodge’s Noah) were their own saviors. My favorite experience of Underground was, perhaps not even the show itself, but the thrill of watching other people who’d sworn off “slave movies,” or movies that promised depictions of Black suffering at the hands of whites (such stories can be set through just about any time period due to America’s unrelenting history of terrorism against Blacks) as they discovered this new genre. One friend of mine was shocked to learn that the only scene in the show where a character was beaten on the back—a la those iconic scenes we’ve all seen—featured a white man (and an abolitionist at that) being whipped by a runaway slave. Respectable blacks are not allowed to say it, but since I neither identify as one, nor hope to be recognized as such, I can say with sheer glee that this remains one of my absolute favorite TV moments of all time. On Underground black rage was like a Negro spiritual, and once you’ve experienced such good, godly rage—once you’ve seen a Black woman hang her white master/rapist/babydaddy/torturer—it’s hard to sit through those films where Black people suffer and achieve quiet victories while those responsible for their misery continue on with their lives.
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds! —Langston Hughes
Some of us have been waiting for “the day,” and thought we saw its dawning through the world of Underground. Some of us can’t stand the idea that we might not be there yet. And some of us wonder how much longer we’ll have to sit through those familiar scenes of the “sweet and docile” negroes whom white America (and white critics and Academy voters) seem to hold so dear.
And so, at the risk of being labeled dramatic (as we critics often are), I do not believe a film like Mudbound should exist in the same time that Underground exists. Underground is a work that filled me with hope—hope that other Blacks were done with the kind of respectability that seemed to plague so many other narratives of enslaved or powerless Black people. But Mudbound—and its success—is a painful reminder that there is a particular kind of hope Black people are allowed to experience, and it’s very much tied to white people and their behavior towards us (good, evil and beyond). Mudbound disappoints because it centers and celebrates a white woman (Carey Mulligan’s Laura) over a black character (Mary J. Blige’s Florence), falsely presented as her co-star. Mudbound disappoints because it tells us a familiar, tired tale of black people bending to the will of whites, that they might live to see another day—only in this film, the light at the end of the tunnel is a private farm for the Jackson family, for the eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) a white woman in Europe. I’ll admit that the land is a win, but the fact that the Jacksons are still being assaulted by the McAllans even as they make their way to that land (the patriarch is forced to stop his wagon and help the white men bury their father—who had literally cut out their son’s tongue days before), is another way of insisting that the trauma of Blackness is endless, that the suffering doesn’t quit and isn’t that what makes us so special? These are dangerous times to continue insisting that Black suffering is eternal … and admirable.
No matter how you look at it, in Mudbound, a white family attempts to destroy a Black family in a way that wants to read as inspiring, or fascinating or at least very complicated … but is actually quite horrific. So when Henry (Jason Clarke) demands that Hap (Rob Morgan) climb down from his wagon and help bury his father, it’s a reminder that no black person in America needs: we have had to do unthinkable things to survive. We have had to exercise unspeakable control in the face of terrorists. And perhaps I wouldn’t mind the reminder as much were it not for the knowledge that these are the stories white audiences love to champion. It’s no surprise to me that a show that dared feature the beating of a white man and the lynching of another (Glory be, this was only in Season One!) was canceled.
While Underground felt like the perfect story to come along during the Baltimore Riots, Mudbound feels like a warning to Black people to stay peaceful and keep their heads bowed—after all, it’s the only way we’ve ever survived. I cannot celebrate a message like that in the year 2017. I write these words three years to the day when Tamir Rice’s mother learned that her child was murdered by the police state that is America. We have enough stories celebrating calm in the face of brutality. Yes, I know that it’s important to honor those men and women who swallowed pride and sacrificed so much more to save our foremothers and forefathers, but when stories like Mudbound are always the only ones being exalted, we must be suspicious. And post-Underground, we must ask our black creatives to ask themselves if there’s a more powerful, newer message they might send to black audiences.
Of Facile Friendships…
The argument will be made that Mudbound is a story about friendship in the face of humanity’s worst. I initially bought into the friendship between Ronsel and Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie (indeed it made for some of the film’s strongest moments), and I understand that we were meant to champion their friendship. After all, it was a friendship Jamie was willing to kill his own blood for, although it’s important to remember that Jamie already hated his father, and was likely already close to committing patricide when the attack on Ronsel happened. And so, in spite of attempting to celebrate a friendship, Mudbound really succeeds in doing the opposite. Ronsel’s friendship with a white man cost him his tongue—his actual voice—and resulted in a night of trauma he and his family will never forget. His white friend? No such sacrifice was made, as far as I could tell.
And what about the friendship between Laura and Florence? I, too, was taken with Laura’s decision to defy her husband in an attempt to save Florence’s husband Hap (and was taken with strong performances from both Mulligan and Blige), but any connection they might have had was always colored by the fact that one worked for the other. Didn’t we learn from Driving Miss Daisy that such friendships are never true friendships? And that portraits of such friendships are difficult to celebrate, because there is a (white) power dynamic that troubles a love or fondness that might otherwise exist?
More importantly, we’ve enough images of women like Mary J Blige’s Florence. Yes, Blige deserves her accolades because she did great work but we’re done (please, tell me we’re done) with movies where a black woman is stoic and long-suffering, while a white female character dares to be complex enough to open the film, drive the overall plot and—perhaps most notably—enjoy the pleasures of sex.
…and Sexless Mammies
What happens with Mulligan’s character throughout Mudbound is fascinating … but only in a film without a black female protagonist who is meant to carry as much weight. I may be a bad feminist, but I’ve learned to interpret a female character by the amount of orgasms she’s allowed to have and the amount of rules she’s allowed to break. Mulligan’s Carey is attracted to Jamie but marries his sturdy, dependable brother, Henry. She breaks many rules—speaking out against his racist terrorist of a father and stealing money from her own husband to help Florence’s family, in a move that reminded me of one of my favorite Underground episodes, and a move that I hoped meant I could expect more surprises from the film, but to no avail. Mulligan is granted three sex scenes, two with her husband and one with his brother. There’s an entire arc of the narrative dedicated to his refusal to have sex with her after she defies him by stealing the money. It’s thrilling and exciting—a woman with desire and disappointments when those desires aren’t met, a woman who goes against prescribed conventions, as much as she can. Would that her black female costar were permitted—not the same (because historical accuracy is necessary)—but, for heaven’s sake, at least a sex life? Would that I wouldn’t be watching a 2017 film and thinking of Hortense Spillers’s declaration that black women were “the beached whales of the sexual universe, unvoiced, misseen, not doing, awaiting their verb.” Show me a black woman with no sex drive or erotic desire, the ability to save white babies from whooping cough and a mind that is utterly preoccupied with caring for her children, husband and nothing else (for it’s the nothing else I have trouble with) and I’ll show you a Mammy-adjacent figure. A sexless, eternal mother who brings comfort to a much more complex white female protagonist is akin to a mammy. And I want more for Blige, and I expected so much more from a Dee Rees film.
I’ve no more room for characters like Florence, post-Underground and post-Ernestine. Those of us who bore witness to the likes of Amirah Vann, on screen—sexual, and fierce, and loving, and defiant and broken—can’t be expected to support stories where black women aren’t given the three-dimensional treatment of their white co-stars. Why, why are we still trying to make stories like this happen? Why, when we have so many other stories to tell, and when we finally have proof that stories about black people, set in the past, do not have to rely so heavily on images of black suffering, while also setting aside no time for images of black retaliation and righteous fury?
You may believe there’s room enough for both kinds of stories and I can hear some of you now—why can’t there be both? Why pit Mudbound—one black woman’s work—against another’s?
An Unbalancing Act
Well, there is room for both stories, just not in the world we live in now, where the more popular and socially accepted version of history is the one we see in Mudbound. In a world where Underground is the anomaly—some strange, wild beast that swept through our world for a moment and was snuffed out before we’d even had a chance for Noah to cut through all the white men he’d need to, to find Rosalee. In a world where we are still being asked to protest peacefully and wait on gods and systems that were nowhere to be found when Freddie Grey was in the back of that van, I can’t make room for Mudbound. In a world where we protest peacefully and white (and some black people) still call it disrespect, I can’t have a film and TV world that’s overwhelmed with stories of black lynchings and men in white robes out protecting white womanhood, and simultaneously starved for stories of rifle-wielding women stealing cargo from the South. I’d have handled Mudbound better if I could have been promised another season of Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman, or if I could trust that when we do get a Harriet Tubman movie, they’ll show us a black woman who carried a gun for a reason: white people. (And would it be too much to ask that she be the type of gangster who doesn’t bust back because she busts first? Asking for a friend who’d like to see a Black woman unapologetically killing white men #SorryNotSorry.)
And speaking of busting first, I don’t know if there’s room for more Mudbound-style stories when someone like Korryn Gaines is dead, and her children motherless. How many black people said she shouldn’t have pulled her gun on those police/terrorists if she wanted to live? How many of us have been brainwashed to believe that we should not ever revolt, that loving our enemies is the only way? And how many films, and TV series, and special episodes and works of literature have contributed to this way of thinking?
In other words, how many of us have seen so many Mudbounds that we think hopping out of a wagon and helping our oppressors bury their dead and heal their sick children is the only way? Yes, it was one way that many of our ancestors survived, but we know (don’t we know, yet?) that it wasn’t the only way. And even if it was, it isn’t still the only way. And even if it is, is survival all we’re asking for? Still? And if we are asking for more, is it just a piece of land and a white woman in Europe to call home? I know I’m being dramatic about the happy ending of Mudbound, but I’m tired and I’ve no more love for these messages.
If you’ve stuck with me till the end of this and remain unconvinced, still unable to see the wrong that I saw in a film you loved or at least enjoyed, I leave you with some final questions that I hope Black people will begin to apply to everything from works of art to political candidates: Who benefits from this product, in the end? Who benefits most from stories that inspire Black people to work hard, pray hard and do whatever we must to keep white people satisfied that they—until the very end—remain, (though inferior in morality) superior in their place in society? Who benefits from these ongoing public spectacles of Black suffering? And if you believe it’s Black people—that the movies and images and endless footage are to our benefit and not to the whites (who often seem to be ultimately financing such things, or presenting them to the world in some way)—then what have we actually gained?
Mudbound succeeds as a film, but again, this is in a world where films often exist to reassure white people that they’re not all bad, not all hated, not all dangerous. In a different world, in a world like the one Underground presented (even with its occasional, positive depictions of white people), something more powerful is at work, something where black people could be whole: full of rage, fire, song, god, desire and everything else they tell us only white people can possess. I’m not completely sure, but from my view, it looked a little more like freedom than anything I’ve ever seen on a screen. And maybe that’s why I’m so fucking mad.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower and Amazon’s Homecoming. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.