Two families tend the soil in post-war Mississippi.
Directed by Dee Rees
Starring Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, and Jason Clarke
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The promise of land ownership and the fruits of one’s labor are only two lies told in the film. Another is the respect that soldiers are supposed to get. A scion of each family goes off to Europe to fight the Nazi’s, and both find success in combat that amounts to little back home. Both react ruefully when the war ends, but for very different reasons. Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie is numbed with alcohol due to his experiences, unable to feel the joy of VE Day, while Jason Mitchell’s Ronsel dreads leaving his German girlfriend for a place that would kill him for speaking to a white woman, much less being romantic with one. When both men get back to Mississippi, Jamie is still affected by combat and Ronsel is immediately disabused of the notion that his service means anything to the denizens of his racist home. There’s only the family that loves him and his obligation to them, despite the rest of the world that Ronsel’s taken in.
It's telling who gets to have a voice-over in Mudbound, in that the decision isn’t based solely on filmmaker sympathy. Jamie has it, but his inner thoughts are never broadcast to the viewer. Ronsel, Hap, Hap’s wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) all get voice-overs because they’re the ones who have to watch what they say to the outside world. In Laura’s case, her husband is introduced in media res intoning ‘We will. We have to.’ He’s not a man open to dissent or anything beyond his will, and Laura has little choice but to submit to his harebrained schemes. She pushes back on occasion, but she clearly has to choose her battles carefully. The Jacksons are more honest with each other, but the rest of their world forces them into a specific box. The difference in tone in Hap’s confident and wise voiceover and his obsequious tone when he’s speaking to white people is heartbreaking. His thoughts are the one thing white people can’t take from him, and he takes full advantage. Mudbound is the rare instance of narration enriching a film instead of devaluing it.
Based on the Rees’ and Virgil Williams’ script, they have sympathy for Laura, but she’s not one of those aforementioned ‘good’ white people, distinct from racists like Jonathan Banks’ Pappy. She might not spit n-words in the Jacksons’ faces, but she does automatically consider them her servants. The film takes pains to demonstrate that her seemingly charitable act to them, in which she hires a doctor for Hap’s broken leg, is in fact a selfish one. She doesn’t seem to have a lot of work to do around the house, but she still needs Florence to watch her family, despite Florence having plenty to do at her home. Hap healing means he can get back to work, and Florence won’t have an excuse to not help her. For her part, Florence is motivated less by warm feeling toward the McAllan’s children, but by the knowledge that if anything bad happens to them, she’ll be the one to get the blame. Laura’s learning well from her husband, who repeatedly interrupts warm Jackson family moments to implicitly command Hap to help him with this or that. Henry has a habit of asking questions that aren’t questions at all, and the Jacksons repeatedly find themselves at the end of these orders, unable to say no.
What Rees lacks in output, she makes up for with a strong track record with actors. Pariah is an excellent coming of age film anchored by what should have been a star-making performance, and Bessie got Queen Latifah a swathe of TV awards. In Mudbound, the principals are all strong, but the revelations are Morgan and Blige. The former is previously unknown to me as an actor, but no longer. Morgan invests Hap with a competency that suggests he could do anything he wanted to, but he’s a sharecropper. His sermons are powerful, his voiceover intonations are resonant, and he’s an emotionally-secure enough man to tear up at the appropriate moments. Blige is the best part of an impressive cast, notable from first sight behind her sunglasses. The ‘strong woman’ trope is overused, and the ‘dignified black woman’ is on its way there, too, but Blige is the epitome of it, both hard and warm at the same time. It’s not surprising that an R&B diva would know how to carry herself, but damn, does Blige carry herself.
Where Mudbound falls down is with Pappy and the introduction of the Klan. The film is on a low simmer for much of its runtime, appropriate for a period where every truck that rattles by the Jacksons’ home might have bad intentions, and it boils over with the harrowing abduction and mutilation of Ronsel. Lynching was unquestionably a part of life for black people in the Deep South, but Mudbound was showing how racism doesn’t need a hood and a cross to impact a person’s life. Rees is effective in making me want to torch a barn filled with revanchist dregs, but I don’t think that’s difficult. What’s always struck me as an untold story is how these assholes would have maimed Ronsel, everyone in the town would’ve known about it, and then they go right back to the butcher or the mechanic who took part in the violence and ask them about the weather. Henry is one of those people content to let abominations like this occur, and his presence is enough. Pappy is a caricature, someone who surely existed and continues to exist, but he’s easy. Henry is more difficult and therefore more impressive, until he’s overshadowed by torture and brutality.
Mudbound gets didactic in its biggest and most intense moments, but the film surrounding that outlier is affecting and subtler. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s use of natural light and enclosed spaces is evocative of the setting, as is the characters constant caking of mud and dirt on their bodies. There’s a stain in this place that won’t wash off, and Ronsel eventually has to go to Germany, of all places, to escape it. It took them awhile, but the Germans eventually fessed up to their crimes and acknowledged the evil that they were capable of, becoming better as a result of it. Americans would still prefer to hide behind the idea that it was all Pappy, that people like him weren’t the tip of a spear wielded by others who economically reaped the downstream benefits from the Jacksons’ labor. Mudbound gets close to plumbing those depths but doesn’t stick the landing. B+