Southern Movie 22: “Mud Bound”

Like the last Southern Movie that I wrote about, Sophie and the Rising Sun, the new Netflix movie Mud Bound also deals with life in the Deep South during the era of World War II. Set in Mississippi, “Mud Bound” follows two families – one white, one black – through the inherent difficulties of the mid-century Southern farming life: land ownership, racial tensions, and post-traumatic stress.

After an ominous foreshadowing scene that has two brothers trying to dig a hole and bury their father before a looming storm arrives, Mud Bound introduces us to two families in Mississippi, each with its own dynamics. The white family, the MacAllans, are middle-class landowners who have leased the land for some time to black tenants, among them the Jacksons. Their lives become intertwined when elder brother Henry MacAllan decides to pack up his wife, his two children, and his father and move from their home in Memphis back to their land in Mississippi, where Henry will become a farmer. This poses two problems: first, Henry has little to no experience in farming, and second, he is a stranger in this rural community and is coming to exert his authority. To exhibit his naïveté, we first see Henry get duped when he arrives at their new home to find that the homeowner has taken his down payment and sold the house to another man. This leads the MacAllans to a falling-down shack on their own farm, a living arrangement far below the expectations of his wife Laura, a refined and sensitive woman from a well-to-do family.

However, the complexities in this story go deeper than simply showing us the travails of an inept novice farmer. In the early portions of the film, we get the sense that Laura is attracted to her husband’s wild and free younger brother Jamie, who will soon leave the Deep South to fight in World War II as a bomber pilot. Further, we have the Jacksons, a hard-working African-American family who have long been tenants on this land and who have aspirations of moving away to own their own land. Husband and father Hap Jackson is the community’s preacher, and like Jamie, his son Ronsel is also leaving to fight in the war when we meet them.  Thus, the tightly woven narrative is rooted in the racial disparities of the Deep South with its nuanced social system based on privilege and land. Mud Bound is a stark and unvarnished look at a fabled locale: the Mississippi Delta of the early to mid-twentieth century.

After the characters and the situation are established, the early portions of the story move back and forth between the hardships of rural Mississippi and the brutal experiences of World War II. While Jamie is an airman, Ronsel is part of a tank corps, an assignment that leads him to an interracial affair with a blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch woman. Both young men witness the horror and violence of the conflict, each losing friends and compatriots during bloody battles, and both narrowly escaping death themselves.

It is when first Jamie then Ronsel return home that the already-present tensions escalate. During the war years, the MacAllan and Jackson families have become further interconnected, mostly due to the MacAllans exerting their white privilege. Seeking some remnant of the life she was accustomed to, Laura MacAllan hires Hap Jackson’s wife Florence to be her domestic helper, a situation that leaves the Jacksons without a homemaker for most of the week. However, Florence must come back home when Hap falls off a ladder while working on the roof of their half-finished church and breaks his leg. As he convalesces, bedridden and helpless, his family must operate their small farm without his help. Adding to the situation are Henry MacAllan’s bullish way of handling even the most day-to-day interactions and his father Pappy MacAllan’s dark, sinister misogyny and racism.

As the film progresses, Pappy MacAllan becomes the X-factor that carries the two families to the edge. When Jamie arrives home, the father and his sons are enjoying drinks when Pappy casually asks Jamie how many men he thinks he killed in Europe. Perturbed by the question, Jamie’s post-traumatic response takes him aback: More than one, he says. We find out here that Pappy also fought in war, but as an infantryman who had to fight and kill at close range, and the two begin to spar over the dignity of their respective experiences, one on the ground and the other in the air. Pappy’s powers of deduction also shift the tide in their small household when he apprises Jamie that he has recognized the sexual tension between him and his brother’s wife Laura. The brooding nature of Pappy’s hate reveals itself through his perceptive, though dogmatic approach to life. Yet, it is his take on Ronsel Jackson that will shift the tide of the whole community and change the two families forever.

Unlike Jamie MacAllan, who comes home from the war frazzled, uncertain, and dependent on alcohol, Ronsel Jackson comes back emboldened and proud. He has not only survived the conflict, he has seen how life can be after spending years in Europe where a man’s skin color was irrelevant. He has gone where he pleased and consorted with who he pleased— however, Mississippi has not changed during his absence. On his first day back, before he has even gone home, Ronsel stops in the general store to buy gifts for his family. Leaving the store, he runs into Pappy MacAllan, who does not know him, but who informs him curtly that black people do not use the front door. Ronsel then snaps back at the old man – a segregation-era no-no – before conceding to the ugly situation and leaving out the back door.

The latter half of the story in Mud Bound builds on this spider web of rural connections. Surprising to Ronsel, Jamie recognizes him as a fellow veteran and strikes up a cozy friendship with him that contrasts the terse, business-like relationship between Jamie’s older brother Henry and Ronsel’s father Hap. Jamie spends most of his time drinking and seldom helps on the farm, a fact that bothers Henry and Pappy. Instead, he often takes the family’s truck to pick up Ronsel so they can ride around and share a whiskey bottle, which makes Hap very nervous (for good reason). The tension is racheting up.

And the two breaking points come almost simultaneously, when Ronsel receives a letter from his Dutch lover that she has born him a son and when Henry tells his drunken brother to leave the farm. From here, all hell breaks loose. Ronsel shares his news with Jamie but forgetfully leaves the letter and picture in the MacAllan’s truck after Pappy sees the two friends riding together in the front seat. Back at the MacAllan’s home, an exasperated Henry berates Jamie and instructs him to be gone by the time he returns from handling some business. Though while he is away, Laura comes to Jamie’s makeshift bedroom, and the two give in to their mutual attraction. Pappy’s frustration with his wayward son’s behavior comes to a head when finds Ronsel’s misplaced letter, which confirms that this black man has fathered a child with a white woman. That evidence leads him to gather a lynch mob.

The climax of Mud Bound shows the violence that supported segregation and other types of white-male dominance in the Deep South. Ronsel is taken by a mob of Klansmen to a barn, where he is beaten and tortured as severely as one might imagine, and Jamie is brought to the scene to face his own infraction: treating a black man as his equal, and as a friend. Here, we see Pappy’s allegiance to hate and domination, and we see that he even prefers it to his own son’s safety. In a final horrifying scenario, Jamie is made to choose whether Ronsel, who is strapped on the wall and listening, will have his tongue or his testicles cut off.

Though we assume that the ultimate results of the vicious ordeal will be the victory of white supremacy – Jamie’s exile and Ronsel’s death – Mud Bound does not take the story in that direction. The movie’s final scenes hold even more surprises. Rather than being defeated by his own father’s cruelty, Jamie answers it. Late in the night, still battered and bloody, he enters the small lean-to where Pappy sleeps to overpower him and smother him with his own pillow. Though Laura has no role in the murder, the two agree to explain the old man’s death to Henry, when he comes back, by saying that Pappy died in his sleep. As for Ronsel, the victim who Jamie was avenging, he lives. He is found by his family, nursed quickly, and smuggled away beneath the seats of their horse-drawn wagon. The family is leaving for good.

Yet, as the deeply injured Jackson family passes by the MacAllan’s home, they find Henry and Jamie struggling to bury their father. (The movie begins with this scene and has thus come full circle.) The Jacksons, who are harboring the near-dead Ronsel, attempt to pass by in stony silence, but Henry calls to Hap for assistance with the task. Hap attempts to stand against his white landlord, because he knows what Henry does not: Henry asking for help with burying the man who lynched his son.

Ultimately, Ronsel is nursed back to health and does what we might never have expected him to do: return to Europe and join the family he had already begun. However, Ronsel must make that journey not only as a black man with little money, but also without the ability to speak. The bittersweet ending answers for us which choice Jamie MacAllan made in that barn: what part of Ronsel was to be cut off? It was his tongue.

The depiction of the Deep South in Mud Bound offers little in the way of hope or solace or redemption. If we survey the white characters in the story, each has his or her own way of coping with the unseemly situation: Pappy through strict adherence to racist hate and male domination, Henry through stolid hard work and privilege, Jamie through excess and alcohol, and Laura through obedience and a scant few refinements. And if we look at the African-American family, we see few options for them as well: Hap Jackson’s apocalyptic Christianity and hope of land ownership, Florence’s patience with her burdens, Ronsel’s attempt at manhood in a place that will not allow him that. In this place, there are no winners, not even the ones who put themselves on top and remain there by compromising their morals and committing atrocities. As a description of the people who are depicted, Mud Bound lives up to its title.

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