Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees, was released today on Netflix and in select theaters. The film, based on the Hillary Jordan novel of the same name, is a subtle and dazzling saga of race, war, and family that explores what redemption means in face of unredeemable racism.
(Warning, spoilers ahead.)
Rees’ film follows the intertwining lives of two families in rural Mississippi during and after the second World War: Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) abruptly uproots his family from Memphis to a farm in Mississippi, bringing his more openly racist curmudgeon of a father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), with them, much to the dismay of his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan). Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their four children are a tenant farmer family working on the land McAllan has purchased.
The film is centered around the clandestine friendship between two World War II veterans: Jamie (Garett Hedlund), Henry’s brother who became a fighter pilot, and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who was a sergeant, and Hap and Florence’s eldest son. The two meet up in secret to bond over the horrors of the war they just returned from (and sleeping with white women). While Jamie drinks to quell his PTSD, Ronsel continues to face the same racism and the same growls of the N-word, despite being a war hero.
The focus of the film may be Jamie and Ronsel’s bond, but the pillars of the movie are the women who bear the burden of the misfortunes that befall their respective husbands without the pride that afflicts the men. Carey Mulligan’s Laura is shrewd, practical, and adaptable; Mary J. Blige’s Florence is wise with a familiar quiet resilience.
But the McAllans are painted with a kind of complexity that isn’t granted to the Jacksons, an issue that appears to be rooted both in the source material and American pop culture in general. The McAllans journey from eager middle class to weary hardship, encouraged only by their own potential; the Jacksons have lived in that hardship the whole time, and the presence of the McAllans only brings more stress and tension. The fate of black family is bound to a white one, almost entirely for worse. But in this powerlessness the film does manage to bring a thoughtful dynamic to the Jacksons, particularly Florence.
Part of the what makes the film so successful in humanizing its characters is its use of voiceover. Instead of the story being told by one person, Mudbound includes narration from multiple main characters, creating a collage of perspectives and motivations that pick up where unspoken tension and knowing glances left off. When Henry and Laura’s daughters comedown with whooping cough, Henry pleads with Florence, a midwife, to come to their aid. While Hap doesn’t want her to work for the family any more than they already do, Florence goes with Henry. The audience sits in the gray area of labor that the Jacksons inhabit when it comes to the McAllans, but Florence’s voiceover grounds her decision and its urgency for viewers who might think she’s just being kind: “If something had ever happened to that other woman’s children, that would have been the end of us.”
The racism that simmers throughout the film comes to a full boil toward the end, when Pappy gathers his Ku Klux Klan friends, kidnaps Ronsel (after finding a picture of a child he fathered with a woman in Germany), and prepares to lynch him. He kidnaps his son Jamie to make him watch, punishment for fraternizing with a black person.
Considering how careful and tender the film’s approach had been up until this point, this scene is rendered even more jarring and graphic. It seems like the brutality of violence inflicted on Ronsel is supposed to be tempered by the fact that Jamie is also the target of their violence. Jamie is shoved into the ultimate impotent white savior role, forced to choose just how Ronsel is to be tortured, witness it, and ultimately be unable to do anything but black out from his own injuries and potential inebriation.
The discomfort of making the lynching scene more about Jamie rather than the actual victim is salvaged by the fact that Ronsel survives, albeit without a tongue. Jamie ends up killing Pappy by smothering him to death, an indifferent vengeance that poses the question of what white redemption looks like in face of immense brutality.
Mudbound is up against a lot in terms of America’s legacy of black period films in more ways than one. On the industry side, while the film earned immense praise and Oscar buzz upon its debut at Sundance this year, distributors didn’t bite—essentially punishing the film for the failure of last year’s controversial Birth of a Nation. Netflix eventually picked it up, and should it live up its expectations as an Oscar contender, it would be a game changer for both the streaming network and black women directors.
The film also wrestles with the history of black period films in its content. There is a visual language of violence against black bodies that focuses more on the “accuracy” of how much pain is inflicted on its black characters than rounding out the characters outside of their pain. Mudbound may be, well, bound to the maxims of how black people are portrayed in period dramas, but it does manage to breathe new life and identity into its characters.
The biggest success of Mudbound, though, is its tone. There’s a subtlety and gentleness that comes through in both the acting and the cinematography, a remarkable balance between the nearly trivial moments of everyday farm life, the bodily trauma of sickness, injury, and miscarriage, and the deep racial injustice that lines every moment, hanging over the film like a cloud ready to burst. Mudbound is more a film about white guilt and redemption than black accomplishment and sacrifice, but that the film does eventually give us depictions of black independence and joy is what makes it fulfilling.