Mudbound Masterfully Paints the Jim Crow Picture
There have been a multitude of movies set between 1876 and 1968. Sadly, the overwhelming majority ignore the presence of Jim Crow segregation. The films either don’t cast African Americans or they cast them in stereotypical, bit roles as maids and butlers. The makers of Mudbound, recently released on Netflix, accepted the challenge of depicting life during Jim Crow and masterfully painted a thoughtful and authentic picture of the era.
Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel and set in the Mississippi Delta, Mudbound pulls us into the world of Jim Crow segregation by examining the relationships between the Jackson (African-American) and McAllan (white) families. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) run the family’s sharecropping business. The Jackson’s have 3 children and the third major character from their family is the oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Ronsell’s story focuses on his service and return from the European theater in World War II.
The story of the McAllan family centers around the farm of Henry (Jason Clarke) and Laura (Carey Mulligan) McAllan. Like Ronsel Jackson, Henry’s youngest brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) also served in the military during World War II. The patriarch of the McAllan family, Pappy (Jonathan Banks) provides the viewer with insight into the inter-generational dynamics of Jim Crow thought, culture and customs.
One of Mudbound’s strengths is its willingness to avoid the familiar racial tropes and caricatures that litter films focused on this period. Instead, Mudbound opts for a more nuanced look not only at the system of Jim Crow segregation, but the day-to-day interactions and power dynamics that were born out of that system.
What was somewhat unique in Mudbound’s perspective is how it tackled the issues surrounding inter-racial interaction. The film provides insight into the ever-changing world of racial etiquette. Racial etiquette were those written and unwritten rules and customs that governed all levels of social interaction between African-Americans and whites during Jim Crow including: where you walked; how you engaged with one another; who spoke first; how your time was spent and with whom; and, ultimately who held the power.
Mudbound also explores the inequity of the sharecropping system. This film examines the economic realities of sharecropping, which was little more than a scheme to keep freed African-Americans and poor whites tied to the land they were working. Mudbound allows the viewer to watch the interplay and inter-dependence between land-owners and sharecroppers.
Mudbound goes beyond the typical surface power dynamics based on race and develops the relationships amongst the families. The tension in the relationships between Hap Jackson and Henry McAllen and then Florence Jackson and Laura McAllan is at times both palatable and uncomfortable. The film delicately uses the shared experiences of Ronsel and Jamie to explore the pitfalls of developing bonds of shared experiences across racial lines. It’s this discomfort that moves the viewer from the distance of decades and allows them to become empathetic observers within the storylines.
The tension that feels ever-present in Mudbound helps to corroborate the shared experiences of many Jim Crow survivors I’ve spoken with and heard from for the Creative Tension: The Jim Crow Years podcast. During this period, the tension of resistance versus reprisals (economic and violent) were always in the minds of African-Americans. The tension between: Dignity versus domination. Self-sufficiency versus starvation. Survival versus elimination. The fight for earthly rewards in the here and now versus the promise of them in the life ever after.
Mudbound also provides a nuanced perspective to the forms of resistance African-Americans exhibited during this era. It was refreshing because it showed how the Jackson’s were able to keep their well of humanity full, despite the realities of Jim Crow. Mudbound paints a realistic, engaging and entertaining look at how a community maneuvered through the all-encompassing nature of Jim Crow segregation. In the process, it paints a picture that has authenticity and depth.
Rev. Elliott Robinson JD, MDiv is the founder of the non-profit Creative Tension, Inc.