I was seven the first time I saw the horror of slavery. My family and I were gathered around the television in our living room in Kissimmee, Florida, shocked into still silence by blues in the night ― the early scenes of the 1977 miniseries Roots. It took everything in me not to look away as the bad guys, both white and black, captured, shackled, and shipped Mandinka Africans to America to spend the rest of their eternity in servitude. Forty years later, those brutal, disturbing images stick with me.
I was too young to stay up and watch that first episode (or any of the subsequent seven) to the bitter 11pm end. In the years since, though, I’ve had my fill of slavery and white-on-black atrocities onscreen. There was “Roots: The Next Generations” in 1979, “Beulah Land” in 1980, “The Blue and the Gray” in 1982, “North and South” in 1985, and so many other TV movies, miniseries, and feature films that have trod the same ground, from Civil War to Civil Rights.
I’ve endured whipping and lynching, braved repetition of the N-word and seethed over mistreatment of my ancestors in works of moving art. “Roots” and several others aside, Hollywood’s black-and-white stories have tended to emphasize the white perspective, a tradition that began with 1939’s “Gone with the Wind.” Racial disharmony may be prime Emmy and Oscar bait, but when blacks play tangential roles in their own American history, it adds insult to past injuries.
And so it goes with “Mudbound,” another black-and-white history lesson that revolves mostly around white. It’s the kind of movie critics love – Mudbound’s black people suffering at the hands of evil white people has earned a 97 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes – an awards magnet during Oscar season. Yes, here we go again.
Meanwhile, there’s another Oscar contender with a racial theme this year. Black people suffer at the hands of evil white people in “Get Out,” too, but it’s a black man’s horror (literally) story. The critical and commercial hit from early 2017 offers a lesson in race relations that previously has gone untaught. Its white villains start off as lambs and morph into wolves slowly shedding their sheep’s clothing to reveal weaponry as deadly as a KKK noose.
For me, a black man who has spent the last 11 years living abroad, mostly in countries where blacks are few, “Get Out’s” stranger-in-the-village allegory resonates in ways that “Mudbound’s” sharecropper tale doesn’t. For me, someone who has been called an Oreo cookie all my life because I supposedly act more “white” than “black,” the black body/white mind ideal at the crux of “Get Out” is just as disturbing as anything in Mudbound and far more relevant.
The two most acclaimed race-themed films of 2017 have just one thing in common besides “Oscar caliber”: Both tell American stories with casts led by foreigners. “Mudbound” boasts a British leading lady (Carey Mulligan) and an Australian leading man (Jason Clarke), while Get Out’s black hero is British actor Daniel Kaluuya.
This continues another troubling trend with race movies. If they’re not made by white directors who focus on white characters, they’re told by black directors using lead actors who are at least a continent removed from American racism. Neither ″12 Years a Slave’s″ black Oscar-nominated director, Brit Steve McQueen, nor its two black Oscar-nominated performers, Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kenyan-Mexican Lupito Nyong’o, are American. Even its white Oscar-nominated third lead, Michael Fassbender, is German-Irish.
In fact, a number of racial period pieces in recent years ― from “Lincoln” to “12 Years a Slave” to “Selma” to “Loving” ― have cast foreign-born blacks and whites in their central roles, as if Americans (especially black Americans) aren’t good enough to act out their own history.
“Mudbound” actually bucks that trend with its black cast, which is truly African-American. But they’re second-tier players in a movie that’s more about the lives of the white characters who own the land on which the blacks live and work. It’s clear from the outset how “Mudbound” will play out because we’ve seen it all before. There will be blood ― of blacks, on white hands ― with no legal consequences. White viewers will be duly mortified and relieved to be so much more evolved than their antecedents.
In a way, movies that harp on historical racism, like “Mudbound,” do these white viewers a disservice by lulling them into a false sense of supremacy. They paint their white villains with such broad strokes that white viewers can look at them appalled but thankful: That’s so not us.
These same viewers often regard racism as a museum piece, a moustache-twirling disorder relegated to the annals of history and the depths of the far right. They completely overlook the casual racism they may harbor themselves. Even though it doesn’t manifest with whips, chains, and nooses, it can be just as lethal to blacks in 2018.
Get Out doesn’t let casual racists off the hook. It goes there and nails them. If viewers can look past the horror element, they might see how the diabolical Armitage family mirror so many white liberals who pat themselves on the back for having black friends, for lusting after black men, for loving Barack Obama.
Ham-fisted liberals who are so “color blind” that black and white are all they see are nothing new. They’ve been with us for decades, both onscreen and off, from Bea Arthur’s title character in the 1970s sitcom “Maude” to today’s so-called “wiggers.” “Get Out” is the first time I can recall a filmmaker (African-American director and screenwriter Jordan Peele) having the guts to label them highly flammable and potentially fatal in a major movie.
It may follow the current trend of using a British lead to represent black American manhood, but beyond the debatably questionable casting, it takes us to a place where we haven’t been before. The movie even acknowledges the role blacks play in social segregation. Chris, like so many brothers, subscribes to the stereotype of how real blacks should talk and act and fist bump. White girlfriend aside, he’s pretty aloof with white people. I’m not sure if Peele is embracing Chris’s version of black identity or critiquing it, but it’s something we need to be thinking and talking about in 2018.
“Mudbound’s” racial revelations are creakier, like something from a vintage YouTube documentary. No shade to the great Mary J. Blige. I’m thrilled she’s about to become an Oscar nominee for her supporting performance in Mudbound, but like her co-stars, she plays an archetype (the noble, long-suffering black mother) rather than an actual character. At least she talks like a real person, not Hollywood’s stock version of 1940s Southern.
Though “Mudbound” falls far short of the brilliance of Beloved (the book), or even “The Butler,” there are flashes of insight. The interracial friendship that develops between the black and white World War II vets provides the movie’s best sequences. It makes up for the laughably amateurish staged war scenes. And there’s long overdue acknowledgment of how white America disregarded black vets after they returned home from World War II.
But these highlights are plot points ― means to a gruesome end in which a young black man pays dearly for daring to touch a white woman. Unlike Emmett Till, he doesn’t even get to be the star of his own tragedy. The climactic scenes are less about the black man’s burden than the white friend’s “Sophie’s Choice” moment.
Ultimately, “Mudbound’s” black-and-white history is a lesson already learned. We’ve all been schooled on slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights – if not in school, onscreen. We’ve all gagged on our strong medicine.
White viewers won’t feel noble for watching “Get Out.” This anatomy of race relations condemns while educating and entertaining. Its genre elements (the horror!) may somewhat dilute its gravitas and could ultimately limit its Oscar potential. Still, the modern narrative, a largely untold story, makes it as essential and relevant as “Moonlight,” last year’s Best Picture winner.
There’s a powerful message here for anyone who is paying attention. This is black American life today – awkward, messy, and complex. It’s refreshing to finally see it playing out onscreen. White America, welcome to our current harsh and horrifying reality.