I have a confession to make. I’ve grown a little weary of “racially sensitive” dramas. They’re often heavy-handed, obvious and rarely convey much of a meaningful message beyond “racism is bad.” But look at the headlines any given day and you’ll see that, in some way or another, we need these stories and these conversations. I’m all for that, but the art that spurs such conversations needs to be engaging and unique enough to continue to draw audiences. Jordan Peele showed how you can make a film about race relations in America while delivering something new and special with his breakout hit Get Out earlier this year. Now comes Mudbound, Dee Rees’ new Netflix drama based upon Hillary Jordan’s novel. Set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi during WWII, the film could have easily been another dry period piece. Instead, it’s a vibrant, moving, essential work of art, one that no fan of film or history should miss.
Mudbound is the cinematic equivalent of a great American novel—epic and sweeping in scope, yet acutely aware of how a single choice can have effects that ripple across generations. The film opens on rural farmer Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) digging a grave for his deceased father alongside his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). Tagging along for the simple wake is Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their children. Through the rain-drenched mist comes a black family riding a carriage, including Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (an excellent, almost unrecognizable Mary J. Blige). Henry asks Hap to help get the coffin into the grave, and the look he responds with is ice cold. He begrudgingly assists, but Florence doesn’t move a muscle, refusing to even acknowledge the white folks’ existence.
We soon find out this intense scene is a flash forward, but thematically it echoes of things to come. This is a film of people talking past each other, often ignoring each other because to acknowledge someone else, especially someone different, often means digging up something in our own souls that we’d rather not unearth.
The remainder of the film focuses on the relationship between these two families. The Jacksons, it turns out, are (paid) servants for the McAllans, but Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks, excellent as always) isn’t too thrilled about having black people anywhere near him. In his world, black folks have to use the back door, should never ride in the front seat, and sure as hell should never copulate with or even befriend a white person. Tensions continue to rise as Laura enlists Florence’s midwifing skills to help take care of her children’s’ whooping cough.
Then, of course, there’s the boys. Jamie McAllan and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both return from the war disillusioned and ill-at-ease in the America they thought they knew. Jamie soon turns to the bottle and Ronsel attempts to push down his anger over returning to a country he served faithfully whose citizens still see him as something sub-human. These boys seem to be the only two who understand each other anymore, and a friendship quickly blossoms. Such a relationship would all be well and good if they were in a different time and place than 1940s Mississippi.
Mudbound tells its story through layered voiceovers, creating a kaleidoscopic tapestry of voices and perspectives. It’s a technique very reminiscent of Terrence Malick, and indeed this feels like the type of film Malick used to make. Rees, who co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams, seems painstakingly committed to ensuring every voice is heard. This is one of the major effects that make the film extraordinary. This isn’t a simple story of poor mistreated blacks and white villains. It’s as much about the plight of the white rural farmer as it is the black man who can’t even look at a white man sideways for fear of physical harm or death.
This is a historically important film, because it does such an incredible job at pulling us into a palpable sense of time and space. It’s hard to imagine an America like this existed, and yet it was not so long ago. Rachel Morrison’s moody cinematography along with the soulful performances draw the audience in and don’t let go. Every scene is filled with tension, because one look, one word, even one moment of silence can change everything.
Particular praise should go to Mulligan, who acts as somewhat of a neutral audience surrogate, and Hedlund and Mitchell, whose characters’ relationship anchors the film’s emotions. Their scenes together are among the most moving I’ve seen this year. A simple conversation between two men who have much in common if you can look past the color of their skin. A scandalous act of kindness, camaraderie and affection in an environment where such virtues are in short supply.
In less delicate hands, the film’s climactic eruption into violence could topple the emotional high-wire act the rest of the story so expertly balanced. But Rees’ hand is so deft, her characters so richly drawn, that I was more than willing to go with it.
Mudbound is a tough, gritty, tragic film, but its ending is unexpectedly hopeful and moving. It says that we don’t have to continue to talk past each other, that people can change. Actions are ultimately more important than words, but we tend to have an abundance of the latter and precious little of the former. In an America that is still quite far from “post racial,” it’s far past time for that to change.