Ever since the historical drama “Mudbound” started streaming on Netflix on November 17, positive word-of-mouth buzz has been building about this film. Director Dee Rees – already an indie film darling for the 2011 movie “Pariah” – is back with another film deserving of critical acclaim. “Mudbound” is inspiring, lyrical and even majestic – and often all three at the same time.
“Mudbound” breaks down the racial tensions in 1940’s America
At its core, “Mudbound” is a story of the black-white divide in the 1940’s Mississippi Delta. The action is focused on two families – one black, one white – showing how their intertwined lives on a run-down farm are emblematic of broader changes taking place within the Deep South. Both families are consumed by the same desires – to create a better world for their children and to deal with the reality of their sons being sent off to fight in Europe during World War II – but the outcomes are different for both because of race.
What is so masterly by director Dee Rees is how every detail seems to echo the broader narrative. Take the colors and tones found in the family homes – the white McAllan family has soothing, neutral colors while the black Jackson family has darker, more ominous colors. That helps to reinforce the broader idea that the issue of race relations influenced every aspect of daily life. The very term “Mudbound,” for example, is a reference to the idea that some classes of society should be kept down in the mud raised than being raised up.
And, to be sure, “Mudbound” shows us the various permutations of bigotry, hatred and prejudice that often played out in the Deep South. Most obviously, you have Pappy McAllan (played by Jonathan Banks), the outwardly racist patriarch of the family, who is none too happy to have to deal with his black neighbors. But there are more subtle forms of racism and prejudice as well, such as the implied notion that a black family must always be somehow subservient to a white family.
The treatment of the sons sent off to war only help to highlight these themes. For example, Ronsel Jackson, the young black son of Hap and Florence Jackson, is sent off to war to serve in a segregated tank unit. In Europe, he is treated with courtesy and respect – but when he returns home, he sees that ideas and perceptions have barely budged back in his home state of Mississippi. In short, despite being a war hero, he is still a second-class citizen in his own country.
“Mudbound” gives an unflinching, modern look at issues like sexism and PTSD
As much as this film is about race relations and the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South in 1940’s America, it’s also an illuminating look at the rampant sexism of the era. It was a time when women were inferior to men. The best example here is Laura McAllan (played by Carey Mulligan), who is raising children on a beaten-down farm. She is used to living in the city, but decides to marry Henry McAllan and settle down with him in the beginning of the movie. Mid-way through, we realize what has actually happened – she has accepted a life of domestic servitude, obeying his every command, even at a time when daily farm life was already hard enough.
And another issue that the film is willing to take on is the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The returning troops from World War II also suffered from PTSD, even if the historical literature of the time didn’t reflect it. It’s an important point that director Dee Rees is eager to make. In this case, Jamie McAllan (played by Garrett Hedlund), the younger brother of Henry, is haunted by memories of serving in a B-24 unit in the war. He may be charming, handsome and warm on the outside, but there is something very dark and disturbing happening inside.
“Mudbound” has the sweep of a Western, but the detailed feel of a novel
Critics have been falling all over themselves to describe why “Mudbound” is so moving. What’s fascinating is that, while New York Magazine’s Vulture blog points out the movie has the “expansive majesty of a Western,” other critics have picked up on the detailed “novelistic” feel of the work.
Perhaps the best way to reconcile these two competing views is to realize that “Mudbound” is actually an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. And the film is actually faithful to the structure and layout of this novel, including the way it treats the main characters.
For example, the film focuses nearly equally on six main characters, three from each family. On the McAllan side, there is Laura, Henry and Jamie. And on the Jackson side, there is Hap, Florence (played marvelously by the music star Mary J. Blige) and Ronsel. We see their intersecting stories and dialogues, and it’s fascinating to see the two families’ stories, juxtaposed as they are next to each other.
The result is, as critics have also pointed out, that “Mudbound” feels like a “an old-fashioned epic drama.” Events play out the way they would in a novel, with new details reinforcing and retracing older narratives – and all in the span of just over two hours.
It’s easy to see why critics have been raving about “Mudbound” ever since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. At that time, Netflix swooped in to purchase the film, with the idea that such a remarkable film should have the benefit of a much larger audience.
Despite all the prejudice, rancor and bitterness of 1940’s America and despite all the pain and suffering of World War II taking place in the background, there is an undercurrent of optimism throughout the film. Just as America emerged from the War more confident, more powerful and more energetic, so will these families. All the old sins of the past will be expiated, and in their place, will rise a new, stronger and more fair society. If you’re currently discouraged by the bitter divisiveness taking place in America right now – director Dee Rees gives us reason for hope.