*This blog contains spoilers about Mudbound.*
Netflix released its feature film Mudbound a story of two men, Ronsel and Jamie, who have both returned home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi. Ronsel is the son of Hap and Florence, a Black family that rents their plot of land on the farm which had recently been purchased by Henry and his young wife, Laura. Henry and Laura move onto the farm with Henry’s father, Pappy, and their small children after realizing they have been swindled in a real estate deal, leaving them without a home.
It is on the farm these two families lives collide, leaving tragedy and heartache in its wake.
Surrounded by mud, racism, and rain, an unlikely friendship develops between Ronsel and Jamie, both who have recently returned to the Mississippi Delta after World War II. As Jamie is leaving the country store, he hears a car backfire and immediately drops to the ground as he has flashbacks of the war. Having returned recently from war himself, Ronsel quickly recognizes that Jamie is having flashbacks and helps Jamie to his feet and hands him his hat. As his hands are shaking, Ronsel tells Jamie, “They say it stops eventually.” This exchange begins their friendship where they share war stories over swigs of liquor and pulls from cigarettes.
But this is still the South, the Deep South, in Mississippi, home of the Ku Klux Klan and no matter how much they may desire to be friends, they exist in two different worlds. A world where Jamie can exit the front door of the store while Ronsel must exit through the back door. A world where Jamie can get drunk and drive his pickup truck in a ditch and sleep it off overnight. And a world where Ronsel fears for his life when a pickup truck is behind him while is walking. A world where Jamie has the luxury of working if and when he feels like it. And a world where Ronsel is obligated to help his father work the land that Jamie’s brother owns. A world where Jamie can freely drive his truck while drinking while Ronsel must duck down in the cab of the truck so that no one will see that he is sitting up front with a White man. A world where Jamie can be intimate with any woman he wants, even his brother’s sister. And a world where Ronsel can be killed for loving the woman he desires. A world where Jamie returns from war and is welcomed back into society. And a world where Ronsel returns from fighting the same war and is still a nigger. A world where the very humanity of Ronsel is held in Jamie’s hands.
Their friendship is only permitted to be as deep as racism will allow. After finishing Mudbound I wondered, is it possible for Black people and White people to truly be friends? Or will there always be this unspoken element of race in between them? I remember when I was younger my friend’s mother told me, “You are their friend until something comes up missing. And then you are the accused nigger.” Just this week Halle Berry revealed a note in which her then husband, Gabriel Aubry, called her a nigger when she objected to him straightening their daughter’s hair. My question is, did he always see Halle Berry as a nigger and finally in his anger just said it? Was that thought and his racism always lurking in their relationship and resting in between them in their bed? At what point did he wake up and realize that he had married a Black woman and it was acceptable for him to call her a nigger?
Last week I remember watching a viral video of two girls,one Black and one White, that insisted they were twins because they shared the same birthday. I watched them play together, and in my heart, I wanted them to be friends forever. It was a video that made me feel good for a few minutes and then reality set in. I remembered my daughter had a White bestfriend in elementary school. They were inseparable for years and then life reminded them that indeed they were very different. I wondered how long it would be before reality set in for the young girls in the video? How long would it be before the harsh reality of racism invaded their lives? How long would they be allowed to innocently believe that there were no differences between them? How long would it be before they realized that indeed they are different and while I celebrated those differences I knew it would mean that one would have a different life than the other. One was born into a system that benefits her, benefits that she doesn’t even realize yet and perhaps never will admit. One was born into a system that enslaved her ancestors and created laws within those systems to continually perpetuate the institution of slavery. One would be celebrated in the world, and one would be vilified. One would be given the advantages, and one would have to work twice as hard to have the same advantages. One would look at TV and magazines and see herself held up as the standard of beauty. One would have to search deeply for women that resembled her and wonder why the world didn’t call her beautiful? One would have to reconcile an atrocious historical past, and one would need healing and restoration from a horrific past.
Is race the pink elephant in the room when it comes to Black and White friendships? Can Black and White people truly be friends in a racist society or does the underlying element of race always outweigh and overpower friendship?