I watched the Netflix movie Mudbound, which takes place in rural Mississippi during and after World War II. It’s really good, and I suggest you watch it. Here’s my attempt at a two sentence summary (spoiler alert):
A black family works as sharecroppers on a white family’s farm, and a young man from each of these families goes overseas to fight in World War II. The movie depicts the racial climate in America at the time, but the white man that went to war was saved by a black soldier, becomes accepting of African Americans, and eventually murders his KKK-supporting father.
To me, this movie was about how culture and experience creates various Us versus Them frameworks. In Mississippi at the time, sharecropping resembled slavery in many disturbing ways, and the integration of blacks and whites was frowned upon by many. This created a clear Othering of blacks by many whites. Interestingly, we see that the two soldiers are able to become an “Us” as they were on the same side in war. Americans, no matter their race, were fighting to defeat the Germans. The white soldier becomes good friends with the black soldier as they bond over their war experiences and traumas, and he ultimately delivers justice to his father (who tortures the black soldier).
Throughout the movie, we see white police officers taking part in racist acts. The producers did an excellent job of showing that the racist sharecropping and other injustices (including lynchings) often weren’t done in secret – it was often those in power that took part in the racism. The white community controlled the narrative, and there was no where for many blacks to report the wrongdoings. Blacks were seen as subalterns, silenced, and subject to the power of whites.
When the African American soldier returns home, he realizes that the racist climate is the same as when he left. He just gambled his life for the safety of all Americans, and some of these same Americans continue to spit on him and make him exit stores from the back door. Not only did African Americans unjustly serve many white peoples’ wealth (e.g., sharecropping), but they were paradoxically seen as equal when lives had to be risked to protect America’s freedom. Despite who actually fought for it, this freedom served the whites in Mississippi and not the blacks.
I think the producers of this movie wanted to elucidate the wrongdoings of many Americans in the not so distant past. In particular, I think they wanted to show the injustice of black people who risked their lives to fight in the war and ultimately returned to racism in their home town. This was done incredibly by the producers – the black soldier is tortured by the KKK in the movie, and this was extremely powerful. Broadly speaking, the central question that this movie successfully asks is: What makes someone a part of Us and what makes someone else a part of Them/the Other?