How “Mudbound” Smartly Deconstructs the Mammy Myth

No more whitewashing the history of forced black domestic labor under slavery.

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Mary J. Blige, as Florence Jackson, looks off into the distance. Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix. _21A5915.CR2

Mudbound was one of the most moving and well-crafted movies I’ve seen in recent years. It is the newest film and critical darling from director Dee Rees, which tells the story of two young men, one white and one Black, who form an unlikely bond upon returning home to Mississippi after serving in the Second World War. The film also focuses extensively on the lives of their two families as well. The film does many things quite successfully, including the brilliant, nuanced performances of the entire cast, the cinematography, the capturing of complex dynamics of race and class in the South. However, what struck me about the film (besides standout Mary J.Blige’s sensitive, restrained, layered performance) was one of the most powerful deconstructions of the Mammy narrative I have ever seen.

Mammy’s service is motivated by love.

For those unfamiliar, Mammy is the post-Civil War stereotype that emerged about Black women domestic workers — an intentional, revisionist, sociopolitical tool that served to whitewash the history of forced black domestic labor under slavery. Mammy is depicted as unwaveringly loyal to the white families that employ her. Mammy prepares meals, offers sage advice, and loves them as though they were her own family. Mammy even has a capacity to provide for her white family beyond her capacity to care for her own. Mammy serves white families not out of a concern for her own well-being. Her service is motivated by love.

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This narrative has been reproduced time and time again in films like Gone with the Wind and, more recently, The Help. In Mudbound, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is a white woman whose family lives near the same land as a Black family called the Jacksons. Part of the plot involved Laura discovering that her children have fallen very ill. Her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) goes to the Jackson home late in the evening, bangs on the door, and begs Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) to care for his sick children.

Florence is no Mammy; she has no desire to do this. She tells Henry she will have to be away from her family for three days to care for them. Still, Henry insists. Florence relents and explains, in her narration, why she left to care for her white neighbors’ children:

If something had happened to that woman’s child, that would’ve been the end of us.

The scene illustrates how the fate of Black women were so often tied to the comfort and safety of the white people around them. In the context of the time, one understands that Henry’s emotional plea was not an ask but rather a demand.

Indeed, even nearly a century after the Civil War, a white person could expect labor from any Black person at any time. There are several moments in the film where Henry knocks on the Jacksons door to make a request, and the Jacksons look at each other with dread and fear. The McAllan children eventually get better. Laura then asks Florence to work for the family and to look after the children. Florence is reluctant. Mammy is never reluctant.

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Florence and her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan), soon have a heated discussion about this. He insists she not work for them. He believes the work is beneath her and says, “I don’t want you working for them.” She responds, “I won’t be working for them. I’ll be working for us.” Florence’s decision is purely motivated by economics. She wants to help support her family.

What is particularly powerful about this depiction is that the audience can sees Florence’s motivations. She is the antithesis of Mammy, working for the McAllans not because she loves them or out of a sense of duty them but because, simply, she has to.

This portrayal of Florence is consistent with the narratives of the women in my family who were domestic laborers in South Carolina. Sometimes they grew fond of the children they looked after, but the work was a practical decision born out of necessity and out of limited options. From the stories that were passed down to me, they had no particular sense of loyalty to the families because those children would grow up, more often than not, to enact the same racism enacted by their parents. After all, the parents had been raised by Black women, too.

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Later in Mudbound, in a particularly emotional scene, Laura suffers a miscarriage. After struggling with an intense depression, she sobs while holding onto Florence. Florence offers a few words of comfort, saying that she also had miscarriages. But Florence is not warm or consoling. She is clearly affected by Laura’s pain, but, still, she has no healing or magical wisdom to offer. Again, Florence is there because she has to be. The uncomfortable truth that Florence knows, and which we also know, is that there is no scenario in which Laura would be there to support Florence if the situation had been reversed.

Mudbound is haunting, beautiful and hopeful despite its honest, unsettling depictions of racism. I was recently part of a workshop in which one a Black woman said of her white husband, “Racism conspired to prevent me from meeting the love of my life.” And that is what resonated with me most about the film. Racism conspired against Florence and Laura having any real closeness. Racism robs all of us, not just people of color, of a profoundly human desire to be connected to one another.