Unclean Thing: Mudbound’s Critique of the “Southern Gothic”

“One time Grandaddy told me to go grab up a handful of dirt from the yard, and I did. He asks me “What are you holding?” I said “Dirt”. He says “that’s right now give it to me.” So I do and he says “Now what’s this I’ve got in my hand?” “Dirt” , I says. Then he says “Naw boy, this is LAND I’ve got. Do you know why?” And he says “because I OWN it. It’s mine. And one day it’ll be yours. But in the meantime, to you and every other person who doesn’t own it, it’s just dirt.

Henry McCallen, in voice-over, while tasting a clump of “his land”

“Man who is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth as a shadow, and continueth not. And dost thou open thine eyes upon such a one, and bringest me into judgment with thee? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.”

            Job 14:1-4, and the first half of Hap Jackson’s eulogy for Pappy McCallan

There are two aspects of the criticism of Dee Rees’s Mudbound (2017) that I find curious and worth digging into, for different but nonetheless thematically related reasons. First, there is the perennial complaint of Rees’s oeuvre, that her output would be somehow better if she ceased to rely on such conventional – read: tired – Hollywood forms and structures. For all of the positive attention that her earlier features Pariah (2011) and Bessie (2015) received, some viewers balked at their cleaving to the substance of cinematic formulae (the urban coming-of-age story, the Old Hollywood biopic) that, supposedly, nothing new can be made to grow from. Setting aside what I take to be the somewhat racist obliviousness of this argument, or why a black woman director might have a stake in working with and working through cinematic forms hitherto mostly untapped by a director with quite the sociocultural position as Rees’s, we’ll circle back to this problem at the end.

The second, and my main concern, is the body of viewers that sees Rees’s riff on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel as uncritically adopting the melodramatic and well-worn conventions of the Southern gothic, albeit marrying them with the family epic in a way that owes as much to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath as it does to Euzhan Palcy’s Sugar Cane Alley. While on the one hand I can accept that there are scenes in Mudbound that are clearly intended to evoke the gothic mode – grotesquerie, incest, sudden violence, crime, and hypocrisy are all on clear display – I think Rees is doing something much more canny, as is typical of her filmmaking, than many viewers give her credit for. It has to do with what Rees has accomplished in reworking the film and significantly expanding the role of the Jackson family, delineating the differences between the McAllan clan’s ownership stake in the stretch of Mississippi delta where the story unfolds and those of their black tenants. And ultimately, it comes down to the magical gesture at the core of Henry McAllan’s memory (above), the closing of a white fist around a clod of dirt that instantly transforms it into something owned, into land.

The dark romanticism of the Southern gothic often leverages that old Freudian nightmare, the return of the repressed, exposing the horrors upon which an idealized and bucolic Southern way of life depends upon patriarchy, slavery, and violence. Rees cleverly gives us all three in the film’s opening scene, as brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) dig a massive hole in the muck to serve as a grave for their dead father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), as a thunderstorm builds overhead. As they dig, they discover a skull, shot clean through: the remains of a runaway slave and, therefore, evidence that their Pappy cannot possibly be buried there. Henry wants to start over, but as Jamie points overhead, he notes that they don’t have much of a choice. Despite the intrinsic spookiness of the scene, this early confrontation with the macabre merely serves to highlight the irrationality of Pappy’s (and Henry’s) white supremacy, where superstition sublimates and defracts a white person’s implicit biases. The trappings of the gothic, here and throughout Mudbound, merely serve as a convenient scapegoat for the realities of racism.

More specifically, Rees is interested in exploring the Southern gothic as an effect of white supremacy meeting its insuperable limitations, the psychic consequences of exposing its own futility and disavowals. In an interview with Writers Guild of America, Rees discusses how its various devotees find themselves unable to successfully leverage whiteness “as a currency,” as a means of brokering relationships without speaking the reality of oppression. The gothic, for Rees, is a sign that this more “civilized,” transactional basis for perpetuating racism, sexism, and classism is an untenable veneer over frank violence. Its expression only seems non-realistic – that is, supernatural or fatalistic – because of a mystical belief that whiteness can be owned and “monetized,” by the same hubristic illogic through which a white fist transforms dirt into land. By contrast, Rees elevates the Faulknerian source material by making a compelling case for the beneficent realism of the inter- and post-war black family: its virtue, its love, comes from knowledge, not just agricultural know-how, but a frank understanding and willingness to articulate the tacit mechanics of structural racism.

Start with the setting: whatever you want to call it – dirt, earth, land, soil, mud – it seems like it doesn’t want to be farmed. But Henry remembers his ancestral claim to a plot of earth and decides, without consulting his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), to uproot the family from bourgeois Memphis to indulge his dream. Little matter that his engineer’s training affords him zero know-how. Little matter that the terrain itself is flooding constantly, muck threatening to swallow the family whole. Little matter, even, that he lets himself be swindled out of a home that would at least allow the McAllans to keep up bourgeois appearances, obliging them to squat in a desolate shack on the flats, sharing space with Henry’s leery Pappy and endure his racist and sexist abuses. No, as brother Jamie tells us early in the film, “We will. We have to. That was my brother, Henry: absolutely certain whatever he wanted to happen would.”

His failure is inexplicable except in supernatural terms, a consequence of the environment rebelling against him. And yet, more realistically, even if the land doesn’t want cultivation, it certainly can be farmed. The Jacksons, the black tenant farmers living in an even more meager shack down the road, have been doing it for years with some success. Patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) could tell you why, if anyone were to ask him: on what must be the site of a former plantation, his entire family going back generations “broke, tilled, toiled, planted, plucked, razed, burned, broke again. Worked this land all their lives. This land that would never be theirs.” And when a relative had the good fortune to obtain a legal claim to it, an actual deed, it did little good: “Four white men rode up on horses one day, aimed they pistols, said it was theirs. My uncle’s good deed torn into forty pieces and thrown to the wind.” Compared with Hap’s experience, the McAllan myth, the clenching of a white fist around some dirt and transmuting it into land, is exposed as a kind of magic, a delusion, a superstition. If Hap and his kind can do it, we must imagine Henry wonders, why can’t I?

Before the McAllans arrive on the scene, Rees shows us an alternative to the family based on tacit racism and foolhardy myth. The Jacksons are as untroubled and nurturing as a black family could hope to be under Jim Crow. In contrast to the McAllans’ emotional evacuation of family life, our first view of the Jacksons (apart from an early tableau atop a wagon, more on which later) shows them united with neighbors in love of Ronsel (a fantastic Jason Mitchell), preparing to ship off to Europe to fight in World War II. His siblings offer words of encouragement, his mother Florence (Mary J. Blige – who magnetizes every scene she’s in) a wish: “You just come back. You come all the way back.” Hap’s speeches as a lay preacher to the larger community are also, largely, Rees’s original composition, a means of grounding the Jacksons and their network of friends in a belief that their compensation cannot simply be heavenly, but terrestrial: “We gonna knock the boot from off our neck, we gonna shake the chains from round our feet. One morning! And I’m not talking about the hereafter. I’m talking about the Right Now!” Florence, meanwhile, offers a stunning meditation on motherhood, labor, and survival, contextualizing her emotional investment in her family by remembering her own mother, whom she only saw in the early morning and late at night, bookends to her work for another family. “I swore,” she affirms, “that my children would have all of me. Would see me in the daylight.”

When Henry interrupts their dinner to tell (not ask) Hap to help him unload their truck at the shack, this model of care and perseverance cannot collectively fathom the toll Henry’s hubris will take on their affection and necessarily tenuous safety. Henry’s model of expense, per Rees, is “investment”: even if his belief in the buying power of whiteness doesn’t reach the openly violent hate of his Pappy, Henry is more than willing to set store by a white man’s natural right to conscript a black neighbor, no questions asked – particularly a black tenant. Yet it is Henry who consistently tries to lend a veneer of respectability to even those more naked instances of bigotry. When Ronsel returns from the war, stopping in Mrs. Trickleback’s general store to purchase a bag of sugar and some candy (to spoil his siblings) on his military salary, Pappy and his cronies take sadistic pleasure in pushing the decorated hero back into the building after he tried to leave. “You must be confused as to your whereabouts,” Pappy sneers. “You’re in Mississippi now, n*****. You use the back door.” Henry arrives on the scene anxious to break the tension, offering a morsel of his whiteness up by way of de-escalation: “Go on now. We don’t want any trouble. Go on.”

Ironically, the greater part of the quotidian troubles that the Jacksons suffer are directly caused by Henry. Ronsel offers a brave defense of his actions by citing his service, performed “while every one of you was back here safe and sound at home. No need to thank me,” but Henry tracks him back to the Jackson house that night to demand another real apology: “You’re asking for a heap of trouble by acting like you did earlier at Tricklebank’s. And I know you don’t want trouble, least of all for your family here.” His admonition seems to depend on an appallingly narrow definition of “trouble,” though, since he fails to perceive his complicity in the family’s crumbling financial stability. After Hap falls off his roof and breaks his leg, Henry drops by to inform the man that he will have to rent him a mule and drop him to half-rations if he hopes to meet his quota by summer’s end. Distraught, Hap tries to stand up only to re-break his bone. For Henry, “trouble” can only signify spectacular racism. But his lack of compassion reflects a sense of entitlement over a clearly superior farmer, a harmful reversal of the original formula brought on by difficulty and Henry’s status as landowner: if I can’t do it, then neither can my tenant.

Laura at least seems intent on spending her whiteness as responsibly as she can. When her daughters come down with whooping cough and the bridge to town is flooded out, Henry brings Florence back to the house as a nurse. Initially reluctant to accept the help of an untrained woman, Laura finds herself so pleased with the situation that she offers Florence a job. Agreeing to the terms, Florence returns home to break the news to her husband, who sees the offer for what it is: “We don’t belong to them. We pay rent, work our own crops for us. That’s it. They can’t just pick us up, set us down like we tools.” Florence recognizes in Laura, however, a willingness to reciprocate that she considers reasonable and relatively kind; indeed, when Laura finds out later that Florence has had to assume Hap’s farming duties, she drives the doctor in from town herself to treat the wound, paying for the expense with money stolen from Henry’s safe. Her motivations are hardly pure, a mixture of distress that her nurse will be gone for months and anger over Henry’s unwillingness to be charitable (“Hap hurt himself working for us–” “Hap hurt himself working for Hap!!”), but her pragmatism deepens an uneasy bond between Florence and the woman she thought “the Delta would turn into nothing but grudge and bone.” Between Laura and Florence, whiteness helps two economically disempowered women assert some agency over the future of their families.

But the limits of Laura’s currency lead to the film’s first major explosion of gothic violence. When her husband fires his other tenant, the white Carl Atwood, over some relatively benign negligence early in the film, his young and very pregnant wife Vera comes calling to speak with the lady of the house. Claiming, in no uncertain terms, that Laura’s husband has left the poor family with little hope of eking out a livelihood that year, Vera begs Laura to help Henry reconsider his decision. Laura, warily eyeing the woman’s disheveled appearance and the muddy footprints her wild-haired daughter has left on the floor, draws a line at this travesty of whiteness’s power, her bourgeois sensibility winning out over her manifest desires to supersede her husband’s authority. So sorry – can’t help.

When next we see Vera, over an hour later, she’s a woman possessed, clutching a filleting knife and striding toward the McAllan house: “You need to take me to town. I’m gon’ kill Carl. I don’t have time to sit down. He’s with her now. He’s started in on Alma, just like he did with Renie.” Refusing, Laura looks on horrified as Vera staggers out the door toward town, later discovering that she stabbed her husband seventeen times before turning herself in. Laura, however, is compensated with a punishingly timed miscarriage – a flash of blood and viscera that clearly consolidates this episode, the writing out of the Atwoods, as an episode of Southern gothic horror. Unwilling to offer Vera sympathy, or even to involve any kind of authorities, Laura allows the gothic to play itself out. Whiteness allows for and facilitates economic domination of black people, but for Vera? A reminder of her own precariousness, how close the McAllan’s are from a similarly desperate destitution? Or, better yet, her own revenant id incarnate, seeking revenge for Henry’s coldness and cruelty? Conflating anxiety with portentousness, Laura supernaturalizes the whole incident: it’s easier to see it that way, rather than acknowledge her complicity in a family’s destruction. And besides, she got her divine punishment.

Of course the film’s most horrifying scene depends upon the relationship between Ronsel and Jamie, veterans who forge a transgressive friendship from their mutual trauma. Ronsel, of course, is skeptical – why should a white man stop his truck to let a black man in, let alone offer him a nip of booze in the front seat? Jamie’s explanation is, predictably, quasi-mystical: flying his bomber over Austria, under heavy fire that kills his tail gunner, Jamie makes a deal with God that if his life is spared, he will do something right. From out of nowhere, a squad of P-38s with red tails show up and allow him to make a clear escape. The pilot of the closest plane gives him a salute. Jamie salutes the black man back. For Ronsel, the story works; though he sees Jamie’s alcoholism intensify by the day, he recognizes that in that moment, Jamie’s attitude toward an entire race had changed. Like it or not, he owed his life to the courageous efforts of black men, and was bound and determined to make good on his promise through friendship.

With friends like these, though… As Rees puts it, Jamie’s cultivation of a friendship with Ronsel, whatever his progressive good intentions, amounts to trying to “burn” his share of whiteness, putting Ronsel directly in harm’s way. Ronsel has returned from the war, and the relative freedom accorded to black men in Europe, with a heightened sensitivity to the injustices of the Jim Crow South, and, as he says to Hap, “Not used to walking away from fights, daddy. Not anymore.” With Jamie, he shares his most profound secret from his wartime experience: a lengthy relationship with a Bavarian woman, who as it happens not only remembers him and wants him to return, according to a letter she sends him, but has since given birth to their son. Shocked out of the listlessness that allows their friendship to foment, Ronsel heads for the McAllans’ place only to nearly be run off the road by Jamie. Drunk and despondent, and having been recently ordered to pack up and go by Henry, the narrative winds its way toward a climax: the truck passes Pappy and co. before Ronsel can duck down into invisibility, the photograph drops from his pocket onto the passenger seat, and Pappy reclaims the truck after a fight with his son, discovering what he later calls “the evidence.”

What follows is a horrifying bit of gothic guignol, a lynching scene often glimpsed from the perspective of those on trial. Dizzied angles upward reveal the usual superstitious paraphernalia of white supremacy’s most powerfully supernatural fantasy, the robes and hoods, the torches and guns. Pappy’s friends have exposed in spectacular fashion how, contrary to Jamie’s belief, whiteness is not something that one can simply burn through or discard, nor is it currency that can be used to the benefit of a black man. And when the horrors reach fever pitch, Jamie is given a hideous choice that ultimately leaves Ronsel alive but mute, unable, ultimately, to provide testimony of his own abuse. Rather than dismiss the Ku Klux Klan as so much overwrought theatrics, the spectacle of the mass, Rees gives us a hyperrealistic glimpse of the scale on which its everyday terrors have historically played out: a few men in a barn, enacting a perversion of justice, in the name of blood and land. This is just the kind of trouble Henry was worried about, a supernatural nightmare of warlocks and wizards made all too real. Or, rather, the consequences of one man’s well intentioned attempt to ignore the conditions of his whiteness, with Jamie at last drawing the Jacksons into the overly racist violence they had managed for so long to avoid.

The movie’s penultimate set of scenes reframe that initial gothic tableau of mud and corpse and skull: The Klan meeting at least galvanizes Jamie to parricide, as we watch him smother Pappy with a pillow before swearing Laura to secrecy. Rees dislocates the next scene to the beginning of the film, a slog through the muck before an approaching thunderstorm to dig Pappy a suitable grave – as it happens, an excavation of a former slaves’ grave that will simply have to suffice as his final resting place. Surrounded by loose skulls and standing over his victim’s coffin, Jamie waits fretfully as his brother runs for a ladder, acutely aware of the possibility of drowning, acutely nervous that his crime may have been found out. But it isn’t – all is well. And when the Jacksons pass by the next morning, all of their worldly possessions loaded onto a cart (and Ronsel secreted beneath them), why shouldn’t Henry ask Hap if he wouldn’t mind helping them lower down the casket, and then maybe say a few words? It’s the least he could do, after all, since he’s leaving the farm in the middle of the season.

It is the film’s final macabre irony that though only Ronsel has actually lost his tongue, not one of the white characters elect to articulate the complete picture of what has happened for Henry. Spared any confrontation with the gothic, Henry remains unaware of any “outside” to white supremacy prompted by the destabilizing realization that reading racism as supernatural emanation, fate, or superstition might only be aestheticized scapegoats for your own moral failings. Such magical thinking is certainly in no way ever a luxury afforded to the Jacksons. Only Hap’s bitter eulogy, with Laura and Jamie’s accompanying “amens,” constitute a sign that something is rotten. The McAllens are all failures, having failed one another in their collective muteness.

So: who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? This all isn’t to suggest that Rees, together with her cinematographer Rachel Morrison, isn’t interested in trying to capture some beauty. The cinnabar smear of a sunset, an angel oak infecting the frame with its uncontainable gold, verdant canopy providing a natural ceiling for a deconstructed church, and the meticulously varied ochres of the inside of a barn are the stuff cinematic dreams are made of, invitations to, however briefly, wipe the landscape of its human stain and dare to imagine what it could be. But the McAllans suffer, in this respect, from a certain lack of imagination. As Laura puts it, “I dreamed in brown.” We leave the McAllans (except for Jamie, who makes it to Los Angeles) in the mud of their own making. The legacy their kind has bequeathed to us is well known. And in the interest of leaving a place better than she found it, Rees offers us in the film’s final minutes a vision of hope. The Jacksons, safely installed in a newer, bigger, honest-to-goodness house, going about their business, surviving on their own. Ronsel, returned to Europe, a voice-over narration providing his internal monologue as he climbs up a flight of stairs to meet his lover and their son. “Should my story end there?” he asks us. “Silenced and defeated? Oppression, fear, deformity. It would take an extraordinary man to beat all that.”

So too with Dee Rees, an extraordinary filmmaker, whose work does not merely repeat cinematic convention but casts a critical eye athwart it, seeking to expose the inevitable skeletons in such a white supremacist institution as Hollywood’s closet. With Mudbound, Rees proves that you don’t need to subvert conventions in order to put them to work in a different way. By simply asking the right question of the coming-of-age story, the biopic, the family epic – by wondering why, up until now, such a story has not been put to film – she interrogates the logic of the genre itself. Mudbound, through its “gothic” elements, enacts a kind of cinematic and metafictional duplication, encouraging its audience to see two movies at once – sensationalist and realist, supernatural and social, and as signifying both inside and outside the magical thinking of white supremacy. The challenge it offers us, in the end, is to see the human horrors for what they really are.

Mudbound is currently available to stream on Netflix. Next week, in a break from Oscar fare, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003).

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