The Tom Story in Mudbound Essay

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The Tom Story

Both Mudbound (2017) and Detroit (2017) seem to mobilize “the Tom story” in ways that seem significantly interesting and different to me. Neither film, for instance, really makes the viewer feel a kind of self-righteousness from a distance—at least not in the way that Williams describes occurs in To Kill a Mockingbird. In the novel, the reader can comfortably shake the head at the treatment of the innocent black man. In the film Mudbound and the film Detroit, the viewer is really too caught up in the horror and the nightmare of what is happening in the moment to be able to feel self-righteous about how he would have handled it differently. There is no distance in the watching of the films. The action is too immediate and the viewer too wrapped up in the unfolding of the drama for “the Tom story” to really have an effect—and that is mainly because of the nature of the medium. Film makes the viewer into a passive participant of the action. In a novel, on the other hand, the reader is an active participant: the work does not go on without the reader’s permission, who can set the book down at any moment, stop and think about a scene, and continue on. A film will simply keep playing even if the viewer slips into a meditation on events. Rather, when watching the films, the viewer is left with a sense of pity and fear—essentially the feelings of what Aristotle (1970) claimed made for good tragedy.

The films do, however, utilize the concept of “the Tom story” in their own ways and interweave them into the story lines so that the characters themselves are left to deal with the reality of how they might have handled things differently.
In Mudbound, the white Jamie is forced to choose the punishment delivered to the black Ronsel, and in Detroit, the black Dismukes is forced to see the white Krauss go unpunished for his role in abuses at the Algiers. In both films, the essence of “the Tom story”—the feeling of audience-jury condemning the racial injustice is felt—but only because in the films the audience is invited to share in this feeling with the two main characters—Jamie and Dismukes. Jamie smothers Pappy to death in revenge for his brutal attack on Ronsel and Dismukes confronts that deviant Krauss after the trial. Neither action is really satisfactory: Jamie goes on to leave his family in disgust and Dismukes goes on to try to escape the racism of the city by going back to the suburbs to be a security guard in anonymity. The audience is invited to shake their heads collectively at the racism that continues to exist in the world—but only once the action has concluded and the audience is able to catch its breath.

While both films also depict events that occurred decades ago and can thus be viewed safely from a distance, from the vantage point of the 21st century where the audience can look back at the way people behaved in the past and feel that now things….....

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Aristotle. (1970). Poetics. (trans. by Gerald Else). MI: University of Michigan Press.

Meer, N., & Nayak, A. (2015). Race ends where? Race, racism and contemporary sociology. Sociology, 49(6), NP3-NP20.

Rapping, J. A. (2015). It\'s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird: The Need for Idealism in the Legal Profession. Mich. L. Rev., 114, 847.

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