Directed by Dee Rees
Starring Jason Clarke, Casey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige
Dee Rees’ Mudbound is an extremely watchable, powerfully told historical film with a rich array of black and white characters that depicts life in post WWII racist and class bound rural Mississippi.
The film focuses on two families one led by a white, stolid, ineffectual farmer Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) who struggles to make a living out of his mud-bound land. He has a wife Laura (Casey Mulligan), a cultivated, piano-playing Memphis girl, who marries Henry to escape her stifling family and spinsterhood. She likes but doesn’t love him, and ends up trapped in a world of mud without options. He has a younger brother who exudes romantic charm and ease, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and who stirs Laura emotionally and sexually. And there is their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), who conveys nothing more than cruelty, contempt and extreme racism (he is also close to the Klan). Pappy is a venomous figure out of some work of agitprop, and the least convincing character in the film.
The blacks Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and a soulful Mary J. Blige), and their large, cohesive and loving (a little too much so) family live on Henry’s land as sharecroppers. Hap may own his own house, tools, and mule, but Henry controls their lives. Hap loves the land as if it’s his own, but Henry — who affirms the racist order of Mississippi — unthinkingly treats them as quasi-servants, asking them to do odd jobs to service his family’s needs. Neither Hap nor Florence, however, demeaning as they know it is (“we don’t work for them”), is able to rebel. It’s the 40s and the civil rights movement doesn’t exist, and fear of losing their livelihood or being brutalized and even lynched holds Mississippi’s black population submerged.
It’s the return from the war of the Jacksons’ bright, eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother, Jamie, that propels the film towards its culmination in horrific racial violence. Both have gone through the hell of the war, and begin to establish a close friendship intensified by their being at odds with the world they have returned to.
Jamie, a bomber pilot, has returned with PTSD and a drinking problem. He cannot adjust to the suffocation of farm life again. While Ronsel, a tank driver, who was treated as a hero in Europe, and lived with a white woman he loved and conceived a child with, has to return to a rigidly segregated world where oppression of blacks is the rule. Neither Henry nor Hap — who accept the world they live in — understands their alienation and anguish.
The film is told from the characters’ perspectives with shifting narrators — their inner thoughts articulating what they can’t express about their lives. And the cinematography strikingly captures how hard it is to work the green and brown cotton fields that often turn to mud when the rain pours down.
The film provides a couple of melodramatic moments, but, in the main, is restrained in its depiction of a totally unjust world. The main characters in the film may not be rendered in the most complexly layered manner, but they are, except for Pappy, given more than one dimension. Rees’s direction is quietly stirring, seamlessly combining first-rate performances with a textured evocation of place.
The film left me thinking about the South today. In a number of ways a different, changed world, but in others the same oppressive place where a Bible thumping racist, homophobe, and pedophile has a chance of winning a Senate seat. In addition, the Klan has had a modest revival, and the Republican Party, linked in some cases to the evangelical right, totally dominates the politics of the region, and leaves little room for progressive legislation.