Mudbound, a Netflix Original Film, is a strong piece by Dee Rees. The writing is some of the best of 2017. The cinematography by Rachel Wilson, in an Oscar-nominated turn, the first for a woman, is of a sensual and gorgeous Louisiana in the 40’s. The performances, especially by Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks, Jason Mitchell, and Garret Hedlund, are captivating and effective. There wasn’t a moment in the film that I felt I wasn’t totally immersed in the history of condemnation and grace captured by Rees, whose film Pariah was a true autobiographical triumph. However, despite the humanity and strong Oscar qualities of Mudboud, something felt a little off to me.
That something, I believe, is Carey Mulligan’s Laura McAllan. Mudbound is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, a white woman. The story of Mudbound, seemingly belongs to every character in the story, but,at its very root, depends very much on the character of Laura. My chief complaint, when watching Mulligan’s performance, is that she is what Brad Pitt was to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
Laura is a sweet, strong, interesting character. She cares for her husband, Henry (Jason Clarke), and her children as well as the Jackson family, black tenants who work the farmland for the white McAllan family. Mary J. Blige, in a virtuoso (and Oscar nominated) performance as Florence, tends to Laura and Henry’s children when they contract the whooping cough. Despite the fact that Pappy (Jonathan Banks), Henry’s father, shouts racist slurs and hatred at her every moment she is trying to treat the McAllan children. While the stern and brash Henry orders the Jackson family around, even with Pastor Hap, in a strong performance by Rob Morgan, struggling to get by with a broken leg, Laura is the sweet, compassionate presence that seeks the Jackson family out and offers them kindness. “If you had asked me before, I woulda’ told you all white folks are the same,” says Florence.
The threat of poverty looms large over the McAllans and the Jacksons. Jamie (Garret Hedlund), Henry’s younger brother, and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), Hap and Florence’s son, both return home as the Second World War comes to a close. Both men have PTSD and are finding their own ways to deal with their symptoms in the face of up close and personal family time. Jamie, a handsome, drunken white poet, is lauded as a hero and Ronsel, a handsome, sober black man full of grace and grit, is immediately persecuted by Pappy and his racist thugs. The conclusion of the film is harrowing and difficult to sit with, given that the heinous racist violence of Charlottesville, VA is still heavy on our hearts.
Mudbound is poetic and sincere. Rees seamlessly blends images of beauty with the ongoing personal narration of each character. What Rees does with narrative is akin to what Terrence Malick did with The Thin Red Line. Both films reveal a landscape that is both beautiful and terrible, doing what it wills under the nature of law. The human stories of black family and white family alike are set against this ungracious world. The relationship that develops between the two struggling soldiers is what covers a multitude of sins, that and Laura McAllan and Florence Jackson’s constant presence of compassion. Mudbound is the kind of beautiful film that we need in the ongoing narrative of race and reconciliation. Rees’s film is timely and a vessel of grace in the midst of our racist presidency and the overwhelming feeling that the predominantly white, male GOP is trying like hell to bring us back to the 1950’s.
The best film of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, was also a film about race. It creatively weaved together tales of people of color and white people so we could truly see what is at the heart of the “nice white progressive” and liberal, Hillary Clinton-voting quietism. What Peele revealed, although mostly fictional, was truly horrific. Rees does two things that Peele did not:
- She gives us a realistic, historically accurate setting which reminds us, sadly, that not much has changed
- Using Hillary Jordan’s text, she offers us a “white savior.” In 2018, do we need another white savior?
The best scene in the film happens when Rev. Hap Jackson, a hard-working community pastor, shows up in his Sunday pulpit in the old barn he and his congregation worship in. In the wake of white violence toward his own son, Hap stands and silently stares at his congregation. He has nothing to say, and yet, his silence tells us everything we need to know. Responding to Hap’s agonized silence with an “I Voted for Hillary” bumper sticker or clicking “Follow” on the Black Lives Matter Facebook page doesn’t mean a thing. Hap’s silence tells a white guy like me, prophetically, that my quietism and “white moderate” approach only hurts the voice and narrative of persons of color.