Thoughts on Mudbound
In Mudbound, Dee Rees' sprawling, post-WWII epic about two families fighting for survival in Mississippi, we get an honest and clear-eyed portrayal of one of this country’s original sins and how history manages to repeat itself over and over and over again. we also get a film that dedicates itself to the thesis that "love is a kind of survival," a powerful message that we need in a world that often tells us otherwise.
Rees has assembled a strong cast, everyone absorbing in their own way, even when they do and say odious things. Using voiceovers, we see and hear the same events happening from each character’s point for view and everyone comes across as a fully fleshed out, three dimensional human being with interior lives and interior dialogues. We see what they see and we also see their respective blind spots.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention how beautifully this movie is shot. This is thanks to the largely hand-held, "you-are-there" cinematography of Rachel Morrison, who has now become the first woman ever to be nominated for a Best Cinematography Academy Award. One can see the influence of FSA photographers Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange in her sweeping vistas of the land and the intimate, candle-lit moments between the Jackson family inside their home. There is a beautiful scene between Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige of the two of them dancing together outside in the evening, illuminated only by the soft orange-yellow light from a nearby lantern. While it should be standard that every cinematographer and photographer knows how to light for Black people's skin, many of them simply do not. So it is always thrilling to see a film where the cinematographer knows how to tease out the nuances of darker skin on camera. The score is also a beautifully composed arrangement of urgent, dark sounding cellos and violins, by Brooklyn-based rock musician Tamar-kali, who also worked with Rees on her first film, Pariah. The music has the quality of a roiling thunderstorm and adds to the tension within and between all of the characters.
Rob Morgan is a quiet revelation as Hap Jackson, a farmer and a preacher with a haunted look about him, except when he takes a moment to slow dance with his wife or mentions his children. Then his face completely changes as it breaks out into a broad smile. Mary J. Blige brings an understated power and grace to her role as Florence Jackson, Hap’s wife. Jason Clarke, gives a tightrope of a performance as Henry, who has recently bougth the land that the Jacksons farm. While he never calls Hap a “nigger”, like his Pappy does, who is played with matter-of-fact contempt and cruelty by Jonathan Banks, he constantly imposes himself and his will on the Jacksons, interrupting their family meals and extending no sympathy to Hap even after he seriously injures himself while working on his church. And in another subtle commentary on power dynamics, Henry never once addresses Hap as Sir, or Mr. Jackson, while Hap always addresses Henry with these honorifics.
Carey Mulligan, as usual, disappears into her role, this time as Laura, who is married to Henry but obviously smitten with her brother-in-law, Jamie. She is unhappy and seems to be out of place in rural Mississippi, having been raised in Tennessee. From her perspective, everything is caked in mud, everything is filmed in blues and grays. And while she extends kindness to the Jacksons, it only goes as far as how she can benefit from their labor—like how she insists Florence, take care of her children, leaving Florence unable to tend to her own family’s needs.
Garret Hedlund, who plays Jamie, Henry’s brother and a fighter pilot haunted by his experience in combat, manages to be charming and seductive, cracking wise and doing good deeds even as he manages to destroy pretty much everything around him. He forges a tentative friendship with Ronsel Jackson, played by Jason Mitchell, an Army veteran battling those same demons as well as racism when he comes back home from the front. However, it is never entirely clear whether he truly sees Ronsel as his equal or if he befriends him as another in a long string of acts of defiance against his brother and father.
While the entire cast gives powerful performances (Blige is nominated for a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) Jason Mitchell's Ronsel struck me as the heart of this story. He conveys ambivalence about his role in the military but it also gave him a sense of purpose and a shot at love. Yes, war is hell but war also “made him a liberator” as he tells Jamie. Ronsel is someone who has served his country, nearly died for it, lost friends because of it, and yet he is not afforded the rights by the country he protected. It is impossible not to see the threads connecting the Klansmen who wield torches during the film’s devastating third act and the white nationalists who wielded torches in Charlottesville, Virginia twice in 2017 alone, some 800 miles away and 72 years after this movie’s events took place.
What makes Mudbound truly effective and compelling is that Rees doesn’t bring modern-day sensibilities to a story set in 1940s Mississippi, as I have noticed other filmmakers are wont to do when exploring the past. They are so desperate to prove how much progress has been made that they pull back in showing the casual cruelty our people endured.
We see that Henry never tells really treats Laura as an equal and leaves her out of crucial, life-changing decisions, even though his decisions affect her just as much, if not more than they affect him.
When someone gets called a “nigger”, we never hear a white person step in and say “don’t say that.” We don’t see Black people start a fight or launch into a grandiloquent speech about how they shouldn’t be called that. They bear it and keep moving forward because that is what one did for survival in Mississippi in 1945.
We see the full and true horror of what the Ku Klux Klan was capable of and what spurred so many Black people to leave the South in droves during the Great Migration. Something I noticed in this film is we also see how the Jacksons are part of a community, part of something larger than themselves, and we see how they look out for one another. For example, we see one of their neighbors say “We’ll pray for you” before Ronsel leaves for the battlefield and we see them come together again after a vicious attack. They look out for each other. They hold each other up in love because that is how they will survive.
We see the McCallens, on the other hand, treat their newly adopted community with contempt and suspicion, at best. And the white community only comes together to participate in the attempted destruction of another. This is one of the few films I have seen that explores the deleterious effect white supremacy has on white people as well as Black people.
We see that above all, the power and privileges that come with whiteness are benefits that most white people refuse to give up, or worse, even admit to themselves that they have it at all. Because that refusal to acknowledge what that privilege is and can be just as destructive as more overt acts of racism.
Mudbound is masterful filmmaking and should be seen by everyone. I am not surprised, just disappointed, that Rees did not receive a Best Director or Best Picture Oscar nomination for a film that is so resonant and sticks with you long after the closing credits start playing. But the awards are not what truly matter at the end of the day. What matters is that Rees told the truth and delivered a quiet, contemplative, and endlessly compelling film for present and future generations to absorb and learn from.
Mudbound is currently available on Netflix.