Mudbound is a film about war, racism, brutality and change. It is also a film about family, love and work. With great performances from the cast which includes Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige, the film beautifully weaves between World War Two and the post-war period in the US South.
It is a welcome contribution to films on the war, where we are often presented with a mythology of a whitened war. Most recently we saw this in the film Dunkirk which completely erased the role of Colonial forces such as the Royal Indian Army Service Corp in the evacuation. Instead in Mudbound we are given a glimpse of the black American experience of war.
Really, though, the film is about returning from war, when black soldiers come back to America after victory abroad. The contrast between war and home is extremely powerful in terms of race. As the main character, Ronsel, states to his white friend, “Over there I was a liberator, but here I’m just another nigger pushing a plough”. Along with the bitterness is also a newfound confidence to challenge the racism of America. On returning from war, Ronsel doesn’t see it as natural any more to walk through the back door; now he wants to use the front.
The film shows how little had changed for black people since the formal ending of slavery after the Civil War, and then how much had changed through the experience of this new war. It is a change that would soon erupt in the civil rights movement.
In Mudbound we see some of the elements that would play centre stage in that movement. These include the church as a space for the collective, and gospel music, where religious themes merge with, and act as cover for, the expression of a desire for genuine freedom. By the 1960s the lyrics of many of those hymns would be transformed by a new generation growing in confidence into strong political exhortations.
Mudbound powerfully illuminates this prefigured history, at a time when black people returning from war were refusing to go back to the way things were. While harrowing in its depiction of racism, it is also hopeful, too, with solidarity that cuts across racial and family ties.