(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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One significant theme from the movie “Mudbound,” which I’ll discuss today as a part of my February series “Black History Month and 2017 Oscar Worthy Black Films,” is the idea of change. Characters in the film are confronted with changes in their circumstances that they struggle to understand and adapt to.
What if World War Two had not happened and Ronsel, the young African-American main character, had not gone off to war and tasted freedoms and responsibilities unavailable to him? What if the white main character, Jamie, had not also gone off to war and discovered that African-Americans were fighting alongside him – at one point saving his life? What if Ronsel and Jamie had not built a camaraderie of shared wartime traumas – a black man and a white man, in the Deep South, supporting one another as they deal with post-traumatic stress?
What if Florence, Ronsel’s mother, had not obeyed her white landlord family’s request that she move in with them to tend their sick daughters? What if she had refused, and those white children had died?
These “what if’s,” and several others, are lingering questions that the film implicitly asks, but never fully answers.
World War Two was an inflection point in US history. Many African-Americans and women were given opportunities and freedoms previously denied them. When the war ended, they were forced to return to their previous status. Women left the factory jobs they held during the war so men returning from war could assume them. Many African-American men had opportunities to serve in the Armed Forces, and they experienced a level of equality in Europe they’d never had in the US. But they, too, were forced to return to their pre-war status.
Even though lasting change was denied, doors had opened. Experiences of wartime equality could not be undone. They were catalysts for change that helped usher in greater rights for African-Americans. President Truman ordered the full integration of the US military in 1948. The Supreme Court handed down its landmark equal education decision, Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, in 1954. Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws were passed in 1964 and 1965. Change came after the war, but just as in the film “Mudbound,” it was slow, painful and uncertain.
This theme of change, and how it should occur, pervades much of the film. Laura and Henry decide to change their lives and move to rural Mississippi, where Henry is from, to become landlord farmers and enrich themselves from black sharecropper labor. But they find the land and the weather are capricious, and that life on a farm is never easy. The post-war American economy was booming and yet, as struggling rural whites, those fortunes do not come their way. They find themselves symbolically mudbound – stuck in past traditions where poor whites are manipulated and tricked by wealthy whites to keep blacks as an underclass – so poor whites are not.
Florence and Hap, the husband and wife black sharecroppers, face their own mudbound obstacles. Laura and Henry’s two white children become very ill – potentially near death. Henry demands Florence leave her family, her children and her injured husband to help nurse his white daughters. What should Florence do? Assert her family’s rights and refuse, or accept age old Mississippi traditions: when white people demand a black person serve them, its wise – for one’s well-being – to not refuse.
Ronsel and Jamie, the two ex-soldiers, make the especially dangerous choice to become friends. Jamie had learned to respect African-Americans as equals when he was saved by a Tuskeegee fighter pilot who fought off German planes attacking his bomber. Ronsel found acceptance and love during the war in the arms of a white European woman, and in a European culture that treated him more equally. Each of their views about race were changed as a result of the war, and yet they too were mudbound on their return to rural Mississippi where racism and the past tried to keep them in their respective places. Their decision, to go against tradition, and change the boundaries of black and white relationships, proved tragic.
These decisions – to change or not – haunt the characters as they haunt viewers. Should changes be embraced, or were they too revolutionary and dangerous? That’s a question the film never answers.
Near the end of the film, Ronsel’s father Hap, who was also a minister, stands at the pulpit in his half-built church, with large gaps still in its walls. This not yet finished church is perhaps the film’s best metaphor about change. Churches have always been considered versions of heaven on earth. Is this unfinished church, where all people should enjoy equality, nevertheless a cruel statement that perfection will never happen? Or, is this church symbolic of something more hopeful? Does it symbolize the advances African-Americans achieved during the war – and the advances yet to come? Do echoes of “how long, oh lord, how long must we wait?” sound within its unfinished space? Or do hope filled strains of “Glory, Glory” rise up instead? In other words, is the dream of full equality and an end to discrimination half undone…….or half-realized? Is the glass half empty, or half full?
This image of an unfinished church highlights the ache of black history and its centuries long story of waiting, and of enduring…two steps forward, one step backward. It’s an allegory for the past nine years in America – the hope and excitement of Barack Obama’s Presidency crashing into a wall of hate in last year’s election. Should we be hopeful that America finally saw the innate dignity and intelligence of a black man, and chose him as their leader? Or, should we be in despair that President Obama’s election incited traditions of hate such that only eight years after he was elected, a bigoted white man was his successor?
That’s a question I believe Rea Dees implies in her film. How long should blacks – and all Americans – hold onto the hope of an equal society when advances come so slowly and when we often seem to be going backward. This is, for us, a moral and spiritual question. A normal response to any wrong, to any form of injustice, is to demand immediate correction. Fix it now.
In Black history, the Civil Warmand the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution after it were intended to create immediate and positive change. 20th century Supreme Court decisions, Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s and the election of Barack Obama should have also ushered in immediate change for the better. Indeed, many commentators said the election of Obama transformed America into a post-racist society. They were sadly mistaken. Just as the film “Mudbound” asks, why do events that ought to cause immediate change for good not succeed? Why has a post-racist America still not come about?
I have no answers. But I am pessimistic about human hearts in general. Many world religions tell us that humans are born with original sin. Jews and Christians believe people are born innately sinful and must become, over time, sin free. After accepting Christ as Savior, Christians are asked to continually give proof of their salvation by regular repentance and continually becoming a better person. Despite that work, the Bible says it is only in heaven when a Christian is truly sinless.
Jews believe in strictly following God’s laws and thus becoming a righteous person after many years. And despite that work, Jews must regularly atone for their sins in order to stay righteous.
Buddhists and Hindus have similar beliefs. People are born selfish, they believe. People must learn, often over a lifetime, to let go of selfish desires. Only near death, or after many life reincarnations, can one finally learn self-less-ness and thus find nirvana.
Goodness, these religions tell us, does not come as a gift or something put into us by god or by our genes. We must intentionally grow throughout life to be kind, compassionate, and respectful to all. In other words, religions say that sins of racism, self-to used thinking, anger and hate must be cleansed from human hearts after much effort.
In the film “Mudbound,” this kind of personal, inward change is championed. Jamie is the one white person who awakened to the humanity and equal goodness of African-Americans. He’s seen them sacrifice and die for others. But his willingness to befriend a black man as a full equal puts Ronsel in grave danger. Jamie may have changed, but other whites had not. Jamie is a symbol of the good that exists in America, contrasted with the widespread hate we also see.
The film seems to say that all people, both good and bad, are stuck in a muddy morass of the past which prevents a more just and more equal world for all people.
As we know, sexism today seems as muddy, insidious, and abusive as always. Many men think it their right to harass women, pay them unequally, and deny them their rights. The same is true for the LGBT community. Same sex marriage became an equal right almost 3 years ago – an historic change for the better. But, a recent report by the FBI shows hate crimes against gays, lesbians and the transgendered have increased 86% just since Trump’s election. And regarding racism, that too has painfully gotten worse. Our black brothers and sisters are demeaned, discriminated against or killed simply at increased rates.
And yet, as the movie shows, the sins of racism and discrimination are not cement. They slow progress toward equality, but do not stop it. The arc of the moral universe is long – and full of mud – but it does bend toward justice. From the dawn of civilization, many people and many nations have abandoned sins of selfishness, greed and discrimination. Today’s world IS better than in the past. Hate has not won the war, even if it seems to win to many battles. Millions have advanced across the moral arc of justice to perceive we are all a part of ONE human family.
Honesty and confession, however, demand we acknowledge our sinfulness. But the fact that we are imperfect should not upset or discourage us. For many of us here, our goal is to become spiritually enlightened such that any vestige of intolerance, superiority or bias in us is eliminated. This congregation, and each of us as individuals, purposefully choose to continually learn how to be compassionate and loving toward all. We may never reach perfection this side of eternity, but we can come close. We may never experience heaven this side of death, but we can help build a version of it here on earth. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said on the day before he was assassinated,
I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
I believe his words are a sad, frustrating – but hopeful message of “Mudbound.”
I’d like us all to spend the next minutes in silent meditation, reflection or prayer. Michael will play some appropriate background music while two stones are passed among you – one labeled “courage”, the other labeled “dream”. As these are passed to you, briefly hold it in your hands, fell the reflections and hopes of those who’ve held it before, pour your god energy and thoughts into it, and pass it along. Use this time to ponder all of the hate and injustice in our world, and ways you personally can help. Let us now spend some moments in meditation and reflection…