Summary: Two families, one black, one white, each with a WWII veteran, one farm in rural Mississippi.
Well, well, Netflix Original Movies. We meet again.
Off-topic, I have an issue with this whole “Make America Great Again” fascination aside from the people that spout it like steam from a teapot. MAGA leads me to think about this country in its heydey: glamorized and romanticized WWII-era stuff like pin-up girls, handsome soldiers, high-waisted clothing galore, suspenders, cigarettes that don’t give you cancer, the list goes on and on… basically the first hour of the first Captain America movie. There ya go.
Directed by Dee Rees, Mudbound takes this era and flips it upside down, showing us a different, unfamiliar side. Taking place in post-WWII, Mudbound starts on the McAllans, a white (seemingly) well to-do but far from rich family looking to run a prosperous farm but find themselves living alongside the workers. The Jacksons, black tenant farmers of the McAllan farm, live down the road. Trouble (well, more trouble) ensues when Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), a former bomber pilot, and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), a tank commander, each return home searching for peace of mind.
Mudbound is available on Netflix and I highly encourage watching it. It’s such a different representation of the 1940’s- one that we need to understand the weird in-between time period people get nostalgic for but only remember 10% of at max. Seriously- in history class, slavery was abolished, racism happened in a watered down version of Mississippi Burning, then segregation was ended. Hooray..? This leaves out about 100 years of racism, institutionally and structurally kept in place. Hit me up if you’d like to talk about this more- let’s get to the movie.
I’m going to get the bad stuff out of the way so I can get to the good because there is so much good. The pacing feels a bit long in getting to the real meat of the story. I have some issues with Laura McAllan, played by Carey Mulligan. Her acting is fine- it’s more the presentation of the character. The movie starts with her but has very little to do with her by the end. I understand using certain characters with relative qualities to better immerse the audience, but Laura lacks a conclusion. The same goes for the actual marriage and her husband, Henry (Jason Clarke). While their unhappy marriage jumpstarts the whole film and then serves as a device to show division in morals and attitudes, the absence of a closing shot of the couple leaves a small emptiness in the conclusion. Instead, the movie closes on Jamie and Ronsel who, up until the second half, feel like secondary characters. This is only further emphasized by the narrative, which ends with Ronsel.
I’m not typically a huge fan of narrative throughout the movie and there is a lot here. In particular, Laura’s lines- mostly about how unhappy she is in her marriage or the coldness of her husband- aren’t necessary. I can see her attitude towards her racist father-in-law, which don’t get any lines and I’d be able to gather most narrative about her husband from the events we are shown. We don’t need all the narratives. However, we get treated to some really beautiful soliloquies, specifically from Mary J. Blige’s Florence Jackson about her son Ronsel and these bookend the Jackson side of things quite nicely.
The acting is sublime here, with Blige, Clarke, and Rob Morgan’s Hap Jackson as the patriarch of the family doing most of the heavy lifting. With such emotional and violent content, it’s easy to dissolve into overacting and exaggeration. The three focus on internalizing their daily struggles as many black Americans did at the time- swallowing pride in exchange for safety. This is reflected even in the comfort of their own homes. I had no idea Blige was such a good actress. She’s had a lot of buzz for an Oscar nomination and it would be well deserved.
Also deserving of mention here is Jonathan Banks as Pappy McAllan, Laura’s racist and backwards father-in-law. This was such a brilliant casting decision and this isn’t just due to Banks’ obvious acting skills. Recently, Banks’ roles have been Loveable Old Dude, including his most popular as Mike on TV’s Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. The casting of Banks forces the audience to reconsider someone they know and trust. When he gets into more radical language (he drops a slur within his first five lines), it’s a jolt to the senses.
The McAllans serve as a spectrum of racism from the most aggressive to the well-intentioned (Pappy, Henry, Laura, Jamie in that order), providing a full range of attitudes towards black Americans at the time. While Pappy and Jamie have obvious attitudes, Henry and Laura tread murkier waters, asking the Jacksons for assistance at various times while not risking their own personal and financial gains. Their style of addressing the couple and demanding help without any “please” or “thank you” speaks volumes of how the McAllans don’t view the Jacksons as neighbors but servants. Laura encourages a sense of obligation when she offers Florence payment for various chores around the house. It seems harmless, but I found this scene disturbing for so many reasons- Laura is so pleased with herself and sees this as helping the Jacksons, while Hap sees this as a step just above slavery. Later, she kindly introduces herself to Ronsel at a stop, but refuses to step up when Pappy and Henry confront him for using the front door.
The perspectives of the characters are fairly objective in these events, achieving both the grey areas that come with its content matter and preventing the movie from “preaching” too much. We never get an internal dialogue by Laura, explaining how she wishes she could help more or how she hates her father-in-law. We are left to judge these and almost align ourselves with certain characters on our own- the “what would you do?” questions are strong.
I’m not going fault the movie for its extremely violent scene, which the whole film creeps toward slowly but surely with its division between its characters. Visually, this is a very bleak movie, emphasizing the hard times and situations. Mudbound does an excellent job of visualizing structural racism and how it has been maintained in a seemingly progressive time period., carrying familiar plantation imagery (yes, I know that a farm is different from a plantation): the Jackson quarters aren’t far removed from slave quarters and they are shown picking cotton. I can see audience members asking, “Wait, doesn’t this take place in the 1940’s? Why does it look like 12 Years a Slave?” It’s powerful to see the slowness of “racial inequality” and should rightfully spark anger- for a time so praised as America’s Golden Era, it’s glaring to see such fault with its treatment of citizens, especially the veteran Ronsel.
It’s a movie that can truly affect change by immersing its viewers more than they may realize. Again, I highly encourage taking the time to sit down and watch- really watch and analyze- Mudbound. It’s intelligently composed in such a way, tying together various pieces of the past to give us a complete picture of how we got to where we are today. It’s a strong contender for my Best of 2017 List.