The new Netflix movie “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees, is an epic about race in the Deep South in the aftermath of World War II. It is also, in a way, about something that happened a few weeks ago.
“The other day,” Rees told me recently, “I was in my pajamas getting ready to walk my dog in the building where I live.” A white guy, “trying to be friendly,” struck up a conversation. “Oh,” he asked, “are you with the dog walking service? Can I get your card?”
Rees smiled, though clearly unamused. “I said, ‘No, I live here.’”
“Mudbound” is a movie about small moments like these, which almost every black person can relate to. Perhaps no other film has done a better job of capturing the role of emotional labor in the story of race in America, of teasing out the connection between the physical and emotional labor of black folk in this country.
The story centers on two families, the McAllans (white) and the Jacksons (black). Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), two daughters, and ornery father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) onto a large plot of farmland in Mississippi. The McAllans own the land, and Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), sharecroppers with four children of their own, work the land.
Hap and Florence’s eldest son, Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), and Henry’s younger brother, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), strike up an unlikely friendship based around the shared trauma of the war. The friendship ultimately leads to tragedy.
“Mudbound” begins and ends with acts of labor that are layered with meaning. In its first moments, we watch the McAllan brothers dig a muddy grave for their recently deceased father. Later, we watch Henry ask Hap, passing by with his family, to help them lower Pappy into the ground. The dead man was a virulent racist, one who bombarded the Jacksons with his disdain; a man who, as we learn later, endangered the lives of Hap and his family. In that moment, all of this history is left unspoken.
Halfway through the narrative, Florence must leave her children and gravely injured husband in order to tend to Laura’s two sick daughters. It’s an act she says, via internal monologue, that she’d vowed never to do ― to put the needs of someone else’s family over her own.
This is the reality of being black in America. “Their lives can be interrupted at any moment,” Rees explained.
“You could be reading a letter from your son who is away at war, or having dinner with your family,” she said. “But at any moment you have to stop doing what you’re doing. Your family connections are displaced or your emotion is displaced, and suddenly you have to perform someone else’s convenience.”
She is speaking of emotional labor, a concept wound up tightly with the story of white and black America. Emotional labor is the folding and contorting of one’s own emotions for the benefit of others, in order to put them at ease, making space for their feelings by burying your own. In the context of race, this means ignoring offhand racist comments and microaggressions for the sake of keeping the peace, absolving white people of their guilt and swallowing righteous anger.
Emotional labor is not an inherently negative thing. But it becomes so when it’s compelled, without any promise of reciprocation. Black people, especially black women, have perfected the art of emotional labor for the sake of survival.
Black people, especially black women, have perfected the art of emotional labor for the sake of survival.
There is a constant assumption that black women have a bottomless capacity to provide emotional labor for nothing in return. The “Mammy” figure is the personification of this idea: a woman who is always jovial, who is devoid of personal desires, who always places the well-being of the white people she serves above her own ― not because she works for them, but because it is in her nature, embedded in her very DNA.
This is what’s at play here, as Florence and Hap navigate the constant intrusions of the McAllan family, who demand physical and spiritual work from them with sheepish smiles that suggest a false sense of solidarity, even understanding.
Stuck at the McAllan home for days as the girls recover and as her own children and husband must cope at home without her, Florence shares a few tender moments with Laura, bonding with her as one mother to another. The next night, Pappy arrives home and accosts Florence with racist taunts and slurs and threats of violence. Laura looks on in silence as Florence de-escalates the confrontation by herself.
The McAllans and the Jacksons are tied together, tied to this land, whether they like it or not. It’s a perfect metaphor for race in America itself ― a problem that’s more than just a problem, that isn’t the burden of just one group but of many.
Because the other crucial thing “Mudbound” explores is the idea of inheritance. We inherit the burden of race, we inherit the burden of emotional labor, and we inherit not just the notion of whiteness as a form of social wealth, but the wealth itself ― just as we inherit the land and the power that goes with it.
“Each of the McAllans has whiteness as currency,” Rees said. “They just spend it differently.”
“Pappy flaunts his,” she went on. “He’s calling Ronsel a nigger and making him use the back door. Henry may not be calling you names, but he’s happy to walk up to your window and say, ‘Hey, get up on your broken leg and come help me out.’ And Laura, she barters with hers. She’s ‘asking’ Florence to help her girls, but she’s not asking.”
“And then with Jamie, he tries to pretend he doesn’t have it, which is equally as dangerous,” Rees added. “By pretending he doesn’t have his privilege, he endangers Ronsel’s life.”
In this way, the McAllans are whiteness in all its various shades, all the shades of complicity that come with choosing to accept or reject whiteness as a currency. By the end of the film, after its brutal conclusion, it’s hard to tell which of the McAllans ― Laura, Pappy, Henry or Jamie ― is truly to blame for all the bad things that have transpired between both families. And that, probably, is the point.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’m not racist,’” Rees told me. “I think what they’re really saying is, ‘I don’t hate.’ But you can be racist without being hateful.”
This idea, that one can be racist without being hateful, reverberates through the world of the film and, of course, through the real world as well. The image of Florence nursing the grandchildren of a man who calls her a black bitch lies on the same continuum as Dee Rees, a queer black female director, being mistaken for a dog walker by her white neighbor in Brooklyn.
Pappy is hateful. The white neighbor isn’t. And yet they operate within the same system; they demand the same emotional labor, the same compromising of one’s emotions.
Art about race, about America, should not live in the past. In this respect, “Mudbound” is a film that’s brilliantly contemporary in the way it explores race ― not as a concept, as a tool for a teachable moment, as a way to shock or awe an audience as some films about race in the past year have done. It has no agenda and no “lessons” to teach.
Some people glibly predicted in the days after Donald Trump’s election that it would inspire more meaningful and profound art. But many films about race in America that have been released in the past year, such as “Detroit” and “Beatriz at Dinner,” have had an unfortunate tendency toward a flattening didacticism. The movies march grimly under the banner of their message, taking care not to implicate too much of the white audience. The dynamics of race in America are oversimplified rather than interrogated, and viewers are ushered toward a predetermined reaction. That’s not what Rees is up to in “Mudbound.” Her wish is for those who watch her movie ― white and black ― to investigate their own inner lives as much as the inner lives of the characters.
“Unless you investigate what you inherit in terms of ideas, you know, attitudes and thoughts about the world, how can you be mindful about what you’re passing on?” Rees said.
America is a shared dream, a shared trauma, a shared problem. We’ve all inherited it.