Beyond Sighs and Silences

Last night, I watched Mudbound with my friend M. (If you’ve not yet watched the film, this post will contain “spoilers.”) After it ended, I recall a quite audible and elongated sigh. My first reaction to the film was that here was another reconciliatory work of art, one that, from the very beginning, centered and more deeply contextualized the white characters, and, in the end, through a kind of both-sides/bad-apple-ism, could leave anyone who watched it—and I speak here particularly of white audiences—feeling struck yet secure, all trauma and rage historicized to the point that perhaps it no longer existed in the present. M and I shared similar thoughts and feelings about the film as we were left questioning how best the work of art can be both of and about while at the same time subverting the personal and structural. Suffice it to say, we certainly didn’t think any work financed by Netflix would ever find such necessary means or meet such necessary ends. But perhaps Dee Rees and Virgil Williams actually did go beyond, as good art does, what’s behind any kind of visceral sigh.

There is a scene in the middle of the film in which the white family builds itself a shower, a clear luxury for anyone in the Mississippi Delta at the time. So it was not lost on me that while in the shower this morning a different reading of the film emerged as I engaged more deeply with Rees and Williams’ work. Hollywood, of course, has long been and remains atrociously complicit in the stereotyping and oppression of black and brown bodies, and so the signifier of Mudbound beginning with the white family can’t help but recall, with the potential to reaffirm, such motives. However, what this morning I’ve become curious about is if Rees and Williams here meant not to center the white family, but critically center whiteness.

What leads me to suspect this is that more deeply within the historicized sigh of this film, there is too the presence of the present—a critical engagement with and questioning of contemporary whiteness—that makes itself most known through a choice. This choice is forced in the film by members of the KKK, explicitly placing the film within what Christina Sharpe has called “the weather”—the (continuing) climate of anti-blackness. (I do not wish to further detail or linger on the violence against black male bodies here, so I will not describe this scene in detail.) In this climate, Jamie, the white friend of Ronsel, a black man being tortured by the Klan, must choose Ronsel’s ultimate “punishment,” that is, which body part will be violently removed from his person. And it is here, within this choice, that I think the film does such necessary work at questioning and calling out whiteness and white allyship. I believe this because Jamie does not choose Ronsel’s eyes, for whiteness is already blinding enough. I believe this because Jamie does not choose Ronsel’s testicles, because whiteness is a project that is already invested in the emasculation of black men. What Jamie ultimately, and within the climate I would even say consciously, decides is to silence Ronsel by choosing his tongue. Without a tongue, Ronsel cannot speak his pain, his joy; without a tongue, Jamie no longer has to listen to Ronsel.

Ultimately, I think the film portrays Jamie as a sympathetic character, which will most likely absolve white audiences from any confrontation with their whiteness, their anti-blackness—the film, to me, still feels reconciliatory, not reparative. But, given the choices Rees and Williams surely had to make, given this story originally told by a white author, I find something necessary to confront in what, to me, is Jamie’s choice to contribute to and continue the climate of anti-blackness. With whiteness, even the weight of simply listening is too much—we still feel this need to speak (here I am, speaking). Worse, we still feel this need to be the only ones speaking. Whether or not it is the “lesson” of this film, whiteness undeniably remains. And to those who remain in whiteness, those who remain willfully complicit and so comfortable in its historicized sigh, we need to confront what remains. We must not remain. The kind of listening that’s being done in the remainder is no listening at all. As M reminded me this morning about Mudbound, we only hear what’s been silenced until the man without a tongue speaks.