In the concluding remarks to her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe offers advice to a reader overwhelmed by the horrors of slavery.
There is one thing that every individual can do,—they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?
What does one do in the face of such injustice? Be like Christ, and feel bad about it. Feeling bad is right feeling.
That sounds like good news for a white American like me, especially one so easily moved by art. American cinema has given me plenty of opportunities to feel right, as Hollywood has followed Stowe’s lead. From the classic To Kill a Mockingbird to the magical realism of The Green Mile, cinematic plots use black suffering as a way to develop its white characters’ dignity or self-realization. Even those involving real-world events, such as The Help, Amistad, or Mississippi Burning, feature white protagonists more than black people fighting for their own rights. None of these movies shy away from racial injustices, but they relegate them to narratives about white people becoming better people—and we love them for it.
But two of the most important movies of 2017 counter this trend by making villains out of white people like me, making right-feeling complicit in systematic racism. In both Jordan Peele’s horror Get Out and Dee Rees’s historical drama Mudbound, white sympathy leads directly to black destruction.
When Sympathy Breeds Violence
[Open spoilers to follow]
Get Out may have an exaggerated plot about a family who kidnaps black people and replaces their brains with those from rich whites, but it acutely portrays the connection between sympathy and violence. The Armitages don’t consider themselves racists because they aggressively welcome Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), the black man dating their daughter Rose (Allison Williams), and repeatedly compliment him for being strong or sexy or cool. In fact, it’s this very admiration that drives their plans to take black bodies and make them their own.
Peele couches the Armitages’ logic in “ally” language, most subtly when Rose and Chris interact with a white police officer. Rose comes to Chris’s defense when the officer begins to harass him, mirroring for white viewers our own fantasies about standing against injustice.
But when we look closer, we see how Kaluuya communicates Chris’s discomfort with the confrontation: he stays away from Rose and the officer, and remains deferential when called over. Peele keeps most of his shots on Rose and the officer, only cutting occasionally to Chris, showing that the fight is about what the two white people want, not his desires. Chris is not a participant in the scene, but an object through which Rose demonstrates her sense of justice.
Moments like these fill the movie, including Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) lamenting the optics of his two black servants and blind art dealer Jim Hudson (Stephen Root) praising Chris’s photography. They’re all scenes in which white characters express appreciation for Chris’s blackness and all moments that Peele ties directly to their body snatcher plot. Even Rose’s defense against the officer, we later realize, has nothing to do with justice for Chris and everything to do with preventing a paper trail of his whereabouts. White sentiment, the movie argues, leads directly to the exploitation of black bodies and the wasting of black minds.
Though more realistic in her portrayal of World War II era Mississippi, Dee Rees makes a similar argument in Mudbound. In place of mad scientists, Rees (along with co-writer Virgil Williams, working from Hilary Jordan’s novel) offers the rural McAllen family: Klansmen patriarch Pappy (Jonathan Banks), older brother Henry (Jason Clarke) and younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). In an attempt to gain the fortune he believes he’s owed, Henry purchases and moves to the farm on which the black Jackson family lives. The Jacksons, headed by Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige), have their own American Dream, one constantly thwarted by the McAllens.
Like Get Out, Mudbound presents various forms of American racism. White viewers likely feel disgusted by Pappy’s overt bigotry, and may even criticize the entitlement of Henry, who repeatedly interrupts the Jacksons to demand their help, whether that be unloading their truck or sending Florence to care for his ailing daughters. But nearly all of us white viewers see ourselves in Jamie, who gleefully transgresses racial mores to befriend Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), a fellow WWII vet. Jamie feels great affinity toward Ronsel and, by swapping stories of love or war, asserts his fellow humanity.
But Rees frames Jamie’s pursuit of Ronsel as predatory, showing the disastrous outcome of his friendship. In their first interaction, Jamie compels Ronsel to join him in the cab of his truck—an offense in the still-segregated South—by pulling rank, shouting, “Get in soldier—that’s an order,” unaware that Ronsel abides because Jamie is white, not because he’s a fellow soldier. Pleased with his own magnanimity, Jamie never realizes Ronsel’s existential threat. When he asks, “You always this stubborn or just around white people tryin’ to be nice?” Jamie puts his hurt feelings over Ronsel’s concern.
As much as we white viewers want to see ourselves in Jamie’s amiability, Rees makes a different point, as this act of ride sharing prompts Pappy and the Klan to punish the two men. Ronsel’s punishment is to be mutilated—to lose his tongue, his eyes, or his testicles. Jamie’s punishment is to choose.
The unequal suffering for an offense both men committed (and that Jamie initiated) reveals Mudbound’s critique of right-feeling. It didn’t matter that Jamie felt rightly, that he was kinder to Ronsel than his brother or father. At the end of the day, his mere ignorance in his presence with Ronsel destroyed Ronsel.
These movies interrupt my “right”-thinking. They display my desires to be a good postracial person and reveal them to be no more than filthy rags. After watching Mudbound and Get Out, I join Paul’s lament from Romans 7: I admit that I don’t do what I want to do and cry out, “What a wretched man am I!”
Of course, Paul makes these claims not as an act of self-loathing, but as a revelation of God’s grace. It’s tempting here to take a shallow reading of Paul’s argument and apply it to the charges made by Peele and Rees: although I have committed sins of omission and commission against black Americans, I am always already forgiven for it. No good works on my part can change that fact, and thus I need only see to it that I feel right about my motivation and the grace given to me.
But Mudbound and Get Out give us reason to refuse that interpretation. Contentment with right-feeling stymies the work of culture change by telling us that our sentiments are enough, thus leaving in place systems that profane God’s handiwork by diminishing his people. Movies like Mudbound and Get Out, unpleasant as they may be to white viewers, show us the futility of our actions. They show us that sympathy can be self-centered. They show us how badly we need the grace given to us, and prepare us to repent and recreate the world in God’s image.
Cover image by Matthew Spiteri.
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