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Mudbound: Friendship, Motherhood, and Redemptive Softness

<i>Mudbound:</i> Friendship, Motherhood, and Redemptive Softness

I remember her cherry cheeks, fuller and rosier than mine. The way she went on diets had an anxious glamour I yearned to emulate, like she was Dietrich with a cigarette or Hepburn in a taut black dress. I’d eat only an orange for lunch that day, too, and grabbed onto a fleshy part of my belly when other kids wondered why. We were nine. We doodled curlicues on notebooks, memorized “Miss You Much” by Janet and “Reminisce” by Mary J. We rewound the songs back and back again on a tape deck, stretching a single pair of headphones so that it would fit around both of our heads.

Jenny lived in the kind of house in Midtown Memphis with two stories, high ceilings, bay windows radiating canopies of sun. It stood close to the art gallery and the zoo and the theater hosting premiere nights, where tickets cost whatever you could pay. It neighbored our elementary school, which came in handy, since both our mothers worked so late. When it was time for seventh grade, my mother sent me ten miles east. She’d heard of a school whose curriculum was uniquely advanced. I’d have to start all over with kids whose parents had moved from the center of the city to its easternmost edge, a migration that had begun twenty years or so before. Back when the federal government’s enforcement of integration finally trickled down our way.

I missed Jenny and our crew of ragtag girls who talked much shit as we ran the streets and danced ballet and popped and sang at the top of our lungs. I missed the streetlights and the coziness of the center of the city with the theater Mama could only drive me to every so often in our new life. Southern coming-of-age stories are littered with moments like this—when, on the cusp of adolescence, the easy intimacy of cross-racial friendships dissipates, dissolves. A slow but purposeful retreat into a social order that calcified before any of us were born. The school out east was multiracial on its surface, but we all fell into friend groups more or less along racial lines before the first dance in our gymnasium. Across the West, researchers have observed the same pattern of self-segregation. The phenomenon is even more pronounced in the American South.

Friendships that cross the color line become increasingly difficult to maintain as the participants grow up. During the Jim Crow era especially, a true exchange between Black and white adults could threaten a community’s social structure. This kind of friendship forms the heart and pulse of Mudbound, which was released in 2017, with a screenplay cowritten by the film’s director, Dee Rees, and based on the 2008 novel. The film details a sprawling yet intimate character study of two families who share a parallel existence in the fertile bottomlands of the Mississippi Delta. Jamie and Ronsel, the beloved sons of each family, are twin flames—would-be brothers, even—from opposite sides of the color line, bound by blood and soil and the stinging grit of America at midcentury.

Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) is a white, twentysomething, university-trained actor who enlists in the army during World War II. When the fighting ends, he travels to his older brother Henry’s Delta farm. Henry’s wife, Laura, was born in Memphis. She teaches English, plays piano, and adores the novels of the Brontës. To her, Memphis is the center of civilization. Located at the Delta’s northernmost point, the city is a cultural and commercial hub for the region—where crops grown in the countryside are delivered for export. When Henry (Jason Clarke) and Laura (Carey Mulligan) marry, he’s an engineer living in the city with a silent hankering to farm his own land. His time comes, and he gives Laura and their girls three weeks to pack up. She is loath to leave her Midtown neighborhood and her busy life of church and society. But she and the girls dutifully follow Henry into the brown, moist swamp. It is remote, “flat and mostly featureless,” she complains. Laura brings along her piano for the comfort of civilization, and soon, her brother-in-law, Jamie, played with a glint in his eye by Hedlund, offers a similar kind of relief.

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