Dee Rees’ tale of two southern families, one white (McAllan) and the other Black (Jackson), living on the same land is masterfully translated to film. At first, I wanted to describe the film as a tale of survival, but after some thought — that’s not exactly true. This is the tale of a poor Black southern family trying to survive, and an average white family trying to build wealth by purchasing a 200 acre farm- tough living, masquerading as survival. The distinction between the two is important as we read this work.
The Jackson family are tenant farmers on a piece of land on the Mississippi Delta, newly owned by the McAllan family. Both Hap and Florence Jackson are saving money for the opportunity to buy their own piece of land. Buying land is a family goal and every member of the family contributes to this dream. Of course, unforeseen things happen and Black dreaming is interrupted- Hap falls off his ladder, shattering bones in his right leg and arm. Literally and figuratively, there are no safety nets to soften the fall. This tragedy, alongside the death of their mule, forces Florence to make a difficult decision, which is to work for the McAllan family to compensate for the lost income.
Things shift when both the Jackson’s and the McAllan’s have a family member return home from the Second World War. The narrative becomes even more interconnected and complex, as both returning men (Ronzel and Jamie) try to make sense of the Delta after being changed by the war.
What fascinates me most about this film is how it documents the complexity of decision making for Black folks. What choices are we afforded? How is our survival a shared responsibility? The paradox of individual decisions rooted in individual needs, but often having a dire collective impact. And as I reflect on this exploration of choice, it makes perfect sense why Black folks struggle to center themselves and attend to their most urgent personal and individual needs.
Below are four scenes that explore this complexity of choice – the ways we have to give up small (sometimes large) pieces of ourselves to prioritize the greater good.
Hap attempts to walk on his broken leg
After fracturing his leg, Hap attempts to rest his restless body. It was more painful for him to watch Florence taking on more responsibility than actually rehabilitating his injured body. When Henry McAllan (owner of the land) drops by to casually force Hap into renting one of his mules to ensure the field work gets done, Hap knows he has to find a way to get on his two feet. Hap slowly and carefully orientates his body toward the edge of the bed, filling the small home with painful grunts. As he attempts to put pressure on the fractured leg, we all know (including him), that this will be a failed attempt at resistance. Before he could fully stand, we hear the bone break, leaving him in excruciating pain rolling around the floor.
Florence goes to work for the McAllan family
Florence decides to work for the McAllan family caring for their white children, their white parents and their white grandparent — mammified to all.This is a difficult decision because Florence swears to herself that instead of raising white children like her mother once did that she would concentrate on raising and loving her very own children, but this promise was broken after their mule dies. Florence did not see any other option, as adding to their income is paramount to the livelihood and dreams of her family. And what would happen to her (and her family) if she told these white people no?
Ronzel apologizes to the white men
Ronzel (Florence’s son) returns to the Delta after serving as a tank commander sergeant in the war. Stationed in Belgium, Ronzel was treated more like a human abroad than in the States. Upon his return, he stops at the local grocery store to surprise his family with chocolates and candies. As he attempts to walk out the front door of the store, he has a confrontation with Pappy McAllan (father of both Henry and Jamie). Pappy is infuriated that Ronzel tries to exit through the front door, instead of using the back door that’s designated for colored folks. Quickly, Ronzel realizes that the war has changed him, but the Delta remains unmoved.
Later that evening, Henry shows up to the Jackson’s place demanding an apology from Ronzel for both him and his father, Pappy. Ronzel is forced to apologize for his inappropriate exit and accompanied sass about being a U.S. soldier. There is no part of Ronzel that wants to apologize, as he knows he is morally correct. However, morals don’t always matter when dealing with white people. He efficiently and confidently apologizes, not because he’s trying to save himself, but because he knew this moment could effectively extinguish the future of the Jackson family.
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Hap helps to put Pappy (that muthaphucka) into the grave
The Jackson family packs up, leaving the Delta behind. As they’re leaving the farm, Henry stops Hap to ask for his help in putting his dead father’s (Pappy) casket into the ground. After some thought, Hap decides to help, which may leave the viewer confused, as we know the violence Pappy has caused the Jackson family. Upon reflection, we understand the weight of this choice (in regards to safety) that led him to help bury this inhumane waste of flesh.
A plethora of these complex decisions exist in this film. Decisions that force us Black folk to examine the ways we move collectively, often at the expense of our individual wants or needs. These decisions, these so-called choices are often the unspoken impacts of institutional racism. The effects of these decisions are temporarily life-prolonging and eventually life-ending. Our bodies are assaulted, our futures are shortened and boxed in, our dreams are killed off, our autonomy is stripped away, and our radical self-love and prioritization is compromised in every decision we make in this anti-Black system- all in the name of staying alive just one more day.
Self-care is a myth for Black folks, as we cannot concentrate on the individual because we are most concerned with the collective. We do this knowing the violence will eventually infiltrate our lives, collective centered or not, because white supremacy aims to kill Black bodies – even if we’re not first up, it will eventually come back around for us. Beyond human dignity, this is another reason to be concerned with the violence that targets Black folks on the margins of the margins – Black queer trans poor disabled undocumented fat bodies must be protected and centered.
Dee Rees is a brilliant filmmaker, and I’m grateful she brought this work to the big screen, and Netflix.
Mudbound is hauntingly true and beautiful to watch. And by beautiful, I experienced anger, frustration, rage, and yet, an unwavering intimacy and allegiance to the Jackson family. They are the folks I imagine my ancestors to have been.
The performances in this film were superb, specifically, the work of Mary J. Blige. Mary didn’t have to utter a single-word to make her character speak. Her eyes could have told the entirety of the story, nuance and all.
All I crave in this anti-Black world is to live in the moment when Florence eats the bar of chocolate on the pitch-Black porch under a starry night. Every bite and every crunch is hers, all the sweetness and all the bitterness on her tongue,
Cody Charles is the author of Moonlighting Our Favorite Blackity Black Quotes In Black Cinema, My Black Fat Body, Black Up The Cast: Re-imagining Iconic Horror Films, I’m Fearful of White People and Whiteness, It Be A Black Reckoning, Re-Imagining Black Love, You Can’t Outdo Black People, Black Joy, We Deserve It, The Night The Moonlight Caught My Eye: Not a Review but a Testimony on the Film Moonlight, 5 Tips For White Folks, As They Engage Jordan Peele’s Get Out. (No Spoilers), and What Growing Up Black And Poor Taught Me About Resiliency. Join him for more conversation on Twitter (@_codykeith_) and Facebook (Follow Cody Charles). Please visit his blog, Reclaiming Anger, to learn more about him.
[Feature Image: A photo of a family sitting on a wagon. The person on the far right is wearing a brown brimmed hat, grey long-sleeved shirt with yellow suspenders and blue suspenders. He is holding the reigns. The person to his left is wearing a yellow brimmed hat and a light brown dress. Behind her is a shorter person wearing a brown brimmed hat, brown shirt and light-colored suspenders. Behind him is a person with brown brimmed hat and a grey shirt. In front of the family is a person wearing brown brimmed hat. He is holding up white papers. Behind them is a cloudy blue gray sky. Source: Craig Duffy]