Trailers for Netflix’s new original film Mudbound played up the unlikely friendship that developed between two World War II veterans. Despite their racial differences, Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), bond over the culture shock that is returning to America’s rural South after several years abroad in the war. The film culminates in a horrific act of violence against Ronsel, who is Black, and the vengeance that Jamie, who is white, seeks on his behalf. But the crucial veins of Mudbound are the perspectives of its two main female characters, who also come from polar opposite racial backgrounds. The differences between Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) and Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) tell an altogether different story about the Jim Crow South. And unfortunately, it feels vaguely similar to how white women and Black women perceive things today.
Life for Laura isn’t necessarily easy. Born in a time where marriage came with very specific set of instructions on how women should behave and feel, she has found herself in a lacklustre romance with her husband, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke). When he announces that they’re leaving their home to move onto a muddy farm, she is shocked and disappointed but unable to protest his decision. She is not fond of her new living circumstances, or the fact that Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) will be joining them. She is forced into a domestic life that she loves in a place that she hates.
Florence's narrative, on the other hand, starts with terror when her son, Ronsel, is drafted for the war. Her family works hard on the land that Henry owns with dreams of one day owning their own. When Laura enlists her to work for their family, Florence’s husband is struggles with the idea of their family being further in servitude of a white family, even though she’s being paid. As a result of accepting the position she is forced to care for both her family and Laura’s. When Ronsel finally returns from active duty and becomes the victim of an egregious hate crime, Florence has to nurse him back to care. She, like Laura, can envision an aspirational life better than the one she is currently living.
And although Laura has the basic human decency to be compassionate to Florence when she and her family experience hardships, and grateful when Florence’s care heals her and her daughters, the ubiquitous nature of racism means that common ground is only ever figurative for these two women. The systemic racism of their era gives Laura a certain freedom that Florence can never access.
And these are the dynamics that have repeated themselves throughout history. Second wave feminism was a fight to de-centre white women’s issue as the basis for gender equality. The third wave introduced intersectionality as a necessary component of the movement in that fight. And decades later “white feminism” is still at the centre of too many conversations about the oppression and injustices women of colour, specifically Black women, cace. White privilege gives white women a veil of protection to advocate for themselves and others, it gives Black women an additional layer of burdens to bear. Mudbound perfectly captured these dynamics. And it's important for viewers to remember that not every them in this film is a relic from the past. Much of it is our present.