Here’s a slice of our country’s history to not be proud of!
Last week, I was invited to a special sneak preview of Dee Rees’ new film, Mudbound, which is based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan. Set during World War II, the film tells the story of two families, one black and one white. The white family consists of Laura (Carey Mulligan), a young city girl, who is married to Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke). Henry has a brother, named Jaime (Garrett Hedlund), who is shipping off to fight in World War II. After the birth of his second daughter, Henry decides to move the family to a bigger house and takes them south to Mississippi. Unfortunately, a crooked realtor has swindled Henry, and the family is forced to move into a broken down shack on their family-owned Mississippi farm.
It is here at the farm where we meet the Jacksons, a black family who works on the farm, trying to clear their debts with the McAllens. The Jackson family is headed by Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blidge), who have a few children of their own, including the eldest, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who is off in France fighting the war. The arrival of the McAllens makes things awkward for the Jacksons, since they are constantly being asked for help, including taking care of their sick children and fixing sections of the McAllens’ shack. Worst of all, Henry’s incredibly racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), is overseeing everything that happens on the land, and his mere appearance threatens the Jackson’s own way of living.
As everyone is trying to get to used to this arrangement, we get a brief look at Jamie and Ronsel, both fighting the war in Europe. While staying in France, Ronsel is not treated with any disrespect for his skin color, and is actually quite welcome there. When he does return home to the United States, he is not given the war hero welcome he deserves, and is even refused the use of the front door of a convenience store. At the same time, Jamie is not able to rid his mind of the deaths he saw while in combat, and resorts to drinking to ease the pain, even when behind the wheel of a car.
One day, Jamie offers Ronsel a ride home in his truck. Though wary at first, Ronsel accepts, climbing onto the back end of the truck, and is surprised when Jaime has him ride in front with him. Eventually, Jaime starts giving Ronsel regular rides, and as these rides become a routine, the two begin to bond. However, a white man giving a black man a ride was unorthodox enough in the South; having him ride in the front seat was even worse, and Ronsel had to duck down every time they pass people on the street. For if they are discovered, particularly by Pappy, the consequences would be unspeakable.
One thing I appreciate about Rees’ approach to these characters is that they are who they are from beginning to end, with no jarring turns in behavior. I also believe that with Mudbound, Rees wanted to tell a story involving different layers of prejudice, and this is seen throughout the McAllen family. The grandfather is the more blatant example, never shy to voice his bigotry. Jamie, on the other hand, manages to see past skin color, and relating to Ronsel as a human being puts him at odds with his family.
Henry, while not a blatant racist, allows racial restrictions to be enforced. Laura is in this same category as well, although she, a housewife and mother, is fighting her own personal battle against sexism. Even though the film’s characters are products of the time, as well as the setting, this depiction of layered prejudiced, unfortunately, still rings true today.
Plot-wise, Mudbound has much going on, so it would be impossible to capture the scope of the plot in a short plot summary. Though the film as a whole works well enough, not every plot line is given enough time for development, and some feel tacked on. For example, Laura, frustrated with her almost passionless marriage to Henry, seeks an affair with Jaime, whom she finds charming and caring. I do believe this could have been left out of the story and make the film stronger, but Rees still handles these scenes well enough.
The one subplot that I personally felt was the strongest was the friendship between Jaime and Ronsel. You really feel the bonding between them bloom as they talk about their war stories and their loves, and the scenes featuring their conversations offers a certain amount of levity to their hostile environment. A friendship like this boldly shows that deep down, we are all the same, and makes you wonder how racism exists. Both Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund give heartfelt, yet melancholic, performances as Jaime and Ronsel, respectively. Aside from them, every other actor does a spectacular job, particularly Mary J. Blidge, who gives a real understated performance as Hattie. There is Academy Award potential amongst this ensemble.
On a technical level, the film looks outstanding. Dee Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison filmed this film in Panavision, and with this approach, were able to capture the vastness of the land. Watching this film, you can even feel the bleakness of the dirt that blankets the land. This is a look we rarely get to see in movies anymore, and even though this film is being distributed through Netflix, it deserves to be seen on the big screen, just for the cinematography alone.
Mudbound is both a well-acted and well-directed slice of American life that we, unfortunately, haven’t completely moved past yet. The many subplots between the characters are not all necessary, but in terms of portraying bigotry, Rees handles this film with sensitivity, and continues to show her talent as a storyteller. As this film suggests, we may slowly be making progress to annihilating prejudice, but we still have a long way to go.
Mudbound will be released on Netflix and in theaters on November 17th.