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Uphill battle: can Mudbound change the white face of war films?

If you go by the movies, the world wars look to have been fought and won by white people although history begs to differ. Now, Netflixs Mudbound is challenging this perception

Over there I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us, throwing flowers and cheering. And here Im just another nigger pushing a plough. So says Ronsel Jackson, a young, black army sergeant, recently returned from wartime Europe to Jim Crow-era Mississippi. Jackson, played by Jason Mitchell, is a character in the epic new movie Mudbound, which pointedly contrasts his experiences with those of a white neighbour returning from the second world war. Its a true-to-life experience that we have never seen on screen before; its rare enough to see a film even acknowledging that African Americans, or other people of colour, were involved in the war at all.

If you go by the movies, the first and second world wars were essentially fought and won by white people. When you look back at the many, many war movies made by both the US and Britain, you would be hard-pressed to spot a non-white face among the heroes, or even among the background characters. We know they were there: more than four million soldiers who fought the first world war were non-white, drawn into European and US armies, for example. On screen, and probably off screen too, we have never really seen the full picture.

Now at least we are beginning to talk about it or rather, argue about it. Look what happened with Christopher Nolans Dunkirk, the biggest war movie of recent years. The fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of colour may rub some the wrong way, noted USA Todays review. Merely pointing that out rubbed some up the wrong way. The reviewer was roundly ridiculed. The guy from USA Today: he does know its history, right? snarked Breitbart News, sarcastically suggesting Nolan should have parachuted in Ice T and Snoop Dogg to administer weed to the desperate troops.

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Christopher Nolans Dunkirk … no non-white faces on the beaches. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

Others questioned Dunkirks omissions. Historians pointed out that 2.5 million south Asian soldiers fought alongside Britain in the second world war. Some 1,000 Indian soldiers were also on the beaches at Dunkirk, not to mention non-white soldiers from elsewhere in the British empire, or the multi-ethnic rescue flotilla, or a heavily north African presence in the French army none of whom seemed to figure among the movies 6,000 extras.

When you watch Dunkirk, remember that its a whitewashed version which ignores the bravery of black and Muslim soldiers, warned the headline of a Robert Fisk article in the Independent. Writer Sunny Singh agreed in this paper. When movies like Dunkirk consistently erase the presence of those who are still considered other and less-than-equal, she wrote, these narratives also decide who is seen as us as opposed to them.

Indian writer Raghu Karnad, whose book Farthest Field: an Indian Story of the Second World War details the dramatic experiences of one Indian family, was not particularly incensed by Dunkirk. While its true that there were Indian troops present, and it would have been interesting for that to register in the film, I dont think it was an injustice that it didnt, because they were a very small minority. He is more interested in why there are no depictions of the many wartime incidences where Britons fought alongside Indians and other forces of the British empire. That chapter is missing in the public imagination.

Britains omission of these troops feeds into its wartime story of standing alone against the enemy, without complicating the issue with colonial guilt a narrative that still contributes to our national identity today, as many Brexit commentators have observed. Karnad points out that India is not particularly curious to revisit the second world war, either. It certainly doesnt fit naturally into the autobiography of the nation, which is almost entirely the story of resistance against the Raj. So theres very little space for any treatment of Indians who fought for the Raj, even though it was by far the largest military experience Indians ever participated in.

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The Longest Day … Im a student of history. Not everything was John Wayne, baby, said Spike Lee. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

An interesting comparison is Joe Wrights 2007 movie Atonement, which visits Dunkirk in one celebrated, five-minute tracking shot prominently featuring a black British soldier. Statistically, that was unlikely; to some commentators it was, inevitably, political correctness gone mad. This is one of the difficulties with war movies in particular. How much dramatic licence is permitted? How faithful to the facts should cinema be? Is it acceptable to omit people of colour who were there, or to include actors of colour who might not have been there?

The debate began in earnest a good decade ago, when Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood got into a similar beef over Eastwoods second world war double-bill Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Where were the black soldiers, Lee demanded. Im a student of history. And I know the history of Hollywood and its omission of the one million African American men and women who contributed to world war two. Not everything was John Wayne, baby.

Lee was doubtless referring to Hollywood epic The Longest Day, which recreated the D-day landings with John Wayne at the head of an all-star, all-white cast (keen observers have spotted a single black extra). At the time, 1962, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People picked up on the movie as a textbook example of Hollywood discrimination (there were an estimated 1,700 African American soldiers at the Normandy landings). The situation hadnt much improved 35 years later, when the NAACP and black veterans protested against Steven Spielbergs Saving Private Ryan for exactly the same reasons.

Eastwood responded that Lee should shut his face, and that his story was specifically about the soldiers who raised the flag on Iwo Jima, who were all white. To which Lee responded, Were not on a plantation. Lee had already made a more substantial response in the form of his movie Miracle at St Anna, which followed a company of black soldiers through wartime Italy. In the opening scene, set decades later, one of them is watching John Wayne in The Longest Day on television. Pilgrim, we fought for this country too, he says.

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Miracle At St Anna follow a platoon of black soldiers but was one of director Spike Lees biggest flops. Photograph: Allstar/TOUCHSTONE

Sadly, Miracle at St Anna was one of the biggest flops of Lees career. It was a similar story with another commendable effort to honour African American servicemen: Red Tails, based on the Tuskegee airmen the barrier-breaking black pilots who proved their worth in the skies over wartime Europe. Producer George Lucas had wanted to tell their story for more than 20 years (a 1995 TV movie covered it more factually), but no studio was interested in a film with an all-black cast, he claimed. So Lucas put up $100m of his own, and filled the screen with stars (Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo) and thrilling aerial combat. Even so, Red Tails only made back half its budget.

The fact that there were all-black divisions to dramatise tells its own story. Segregation was the norm in the US military, just as it was in civilian life. As Jackson puts it in Mudbound: The army gave us separate barracks, separate blood supply, separate latrines. Theres a telling scene in Miracle at St Anna where the black soldiers go to an allied cafe on their European military base. The white owner refuses to serve them, but is happy to serve German prisoners of war. There are similar stories of British service establishments refusing to serve Indian officers.

The war fed into independence movements in countries like India and in north Africa where people began to question why they were fighting alongside their colonial oppressors when they could be fighting against them. It also fed into the US civil rights movement. Race barriers came down in the US military first: it was desegregated in 1948. The 761st tank battalion, in which Mudbounds Jackson serves, were known as the black panthers.

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Key figure … Naveen Andrews as a bomb disposal expert with Juliette Binoche in The English Patient. Photograph: Allstar/Miramax

Mudbound is one of the first movies to explain why notions of patriotism for people of colour can be complicated, even conflicted. A few decades later, Muhammad Ali was refusing to fight in the Vietnam war, his stance distilled down to the slogan, No Viet-Cong ever called me nigger. You can see it today in Colin Kaepernick and the taking the knee protests at NFL games. Note, again, how a protest against inequality and police brutality was wilfully interpreted by Donald Trump as an insult to the flag and the courageous patriots who fought and died for it never mind that many of those patriots were themselves African American, or that kneeling to the national anthem barely compares to neo-Nazi torchlit marches when it comes to objectionable forms of protest.

Non-white war movies are still few and far between. Sam Fuller included an Asian-American soldier in 1951 Korean war drama The Steel Helmet, as did Lewis Milestone in 1959s Pork Chop Hill. More recently there was John Woos well-intentioned Windtalkers, on the contribution Native Americans made in the second world war. And Captain America had an Asian-American (Kenneth Choi) on his team in The First Avenger. More successful was Frances Oscar-nominated hit Days Of Glory, following a handful of the 200,000 north African soldiers who helped liberate the colonial motherland they had never actually visited, and detailing the institutional racism they faced throughout the war.

In real life, Frances African soldiers were literally whitewashed out of history. By the time of the liberation of Paris, in 1944, they comprised over two-thirds of the Free French forces. General De Gaulle and the allies stipulated that the first troops to march into the city should be white, Frenchmen only, even if that meant weeding out soldiers of colour and replacing them with white men from other divisions.

One of the few British movies to really acknowledge the contribution of its colonial combatants was The English Patient. A key figure in the narrative is a Sikh bomb-disposal expert, played by Naveen Andrews. Far from simply a token ethnic person, he is one of the key characters, and his romance with Juliette Binoche is an uplifting counterpoint to the central, tragic love story.

It is no coincidence that most of these stories come from non-white, male sources: in the case of The English Patient, Sri-Lankan born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje; Days Of Glory was directed by Algerian Rachid Bouchareb; Mudbound was directed by African American Dee Rees. There are plenty more stories like this. Karnads Farthest Field follows an Indian company through east Africa, north Africa, Iraq and India. The heroic 14th army heroically pushed back Japanese forces in Burma, with a multinational force in which Britons were the minority. Academia and literature have already begun to incorporate these histories, but it seems cinema is still catching up.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/nov/17/mudbound-movies-white-face-of-war-films-black-soldier

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