In psychology, the paradox of “depressive realism” refers to the fact that depressives better estimate probabilities than the average subject. Depressives are less encumbered by wishful thinking and tend to see their own chances more clearly. Unfortunately for the depressive, a more realistic view of one’s chances comes with declining motivation and loss of interest in most activities. Depressives are more realistic, but they lack the drive to take advantage of their realism.
I see a similar dynamic in recent commentary on race in the US. For some commentators, the greatest danger is wishful thinking about the scope of racial inequality. Americans need to understand the full breadth and scale of white supremacy, on this view, since it’s all too easy to tell a story of progress and improvement. Wishful thinking is the surest way to pretend racism in America is a thing of the past.
One worry about this analysis is that it’s self-undermining. If white supremacy and racial inequality in America are so deeply woven into the fabric of the nation’s history, then why even bother mobilizing people, passing a law, or running for office? Nothing will make a difference. There’s no hope for improvement or transformation. We’re left, perhaps, with only personal approaches to the problem of living in a racially divided society. Maybe all we can do is learn to live with cognitive dissonance.
Mudbound tries to steer a middle course between these two positions. The films opening with the two white McAllan brothers digging a grave for their father–a vicious bigot–as night falls and a storm front arrives. The younger brother in the grave panics as the muddy water rises around him, but the elder one arrives with a ladder to get him out. For a moment it seems that the next generation might fall into the same pit as the last, but a tool forestalls the tragedy. The next morning the Jacksons, their black tenants, pass by the grave in their wagon, carrying what we will learn is their grievously wounded eldest son. The white brother approaches them tensely, requesting their help to lower the coffin into the grave.
At the end of the film, we return to this of confrontation between the two families. Who will take responsibility for burying the past? The viewer is now fully aware of the multiple forms of physical and emotional dependence and exploitation between the McAllans and the Jacksons. Now comes the most terrible form yet–the McAllans ask Hap Jackson to help bury the man who lynched their own son. As the leader of the local black congregation, Hap offers a cutting graveside “eulogy.” He must not only physically support the McAllans, but also help them address their own racial guilt.
Before this, however, there is a moment when the elder McAllan brother asks Hap to bring his sons to help as well. Hap’s response is immediate and unequivocal: “My sons are not getting down out of that wagon.” This is the first and only moment in the film where a black person directly refuses a white person. Hap does not refuse to help McAllan–he refuses to involve his sons. The moment is ambiguous. Is this a personal act to keep his family’s hands clean? Or is it a political moment, where Hap expresses hope that his children will not inherit an America where black people are asked to solve white people’s problems?
I prefer to think that Hap’s intention is not merely personal. Personal reconciliation to life under injustice (what Isaiah Berlin called “the retreat to the inner citadel“) presents itself as a safer, more robust orientation toward the world. This approach assumes that what we most care about is our own self-understanding. Surely living according to our own conscience under injustice is essential, but personal responses to racial injustice overlook the fact that we do not simply care about self-understanding. Personal responses do not cordon off and protect what we most care about. We care about other people who have their own lives to lead and lives that could be unburdened by racial injustice. It matters to each of us that they shouldn’t get down out of their wagon.