(SPOILERS) Mudbound has had to make do with just the four Oscar nominations, all well-deserved (although honestly, I’m not so fussed by the overly earnest song), failing to trouble the big four categories, but it’s a much better film than at least several of the nine selected for the top prize. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the Netflix factor, or that Academy members only feel inclined to given the nod to one movie about racism per year. Mudbound, set in and around Jim Crow Mississipi in the ‘40s, isn’t just about racism, but it’s infused into its characters and locale such that all other themes are informed or affected by it. At times, there’s a sense that it’s trying to achieve too much, spread its canvas too broadly for the time it has, but when it hits its stride, it’s outstanding.
Director Dee Rees adapted (with Virgil Williams) Hillary Jordan’s 2008 book of the same name, which may partly explain the overly novelistic approach of the opening sections as, attempting set up so many different perspectives, she adopts successive voiceover monologues for each individual, white and black, serving to foster varying degrees of empathy and understanding, dependent on their own self-awareness. The reliance on this device diminishes as she, and we, become more secure in the setting and those occupying the farm. There’s a sense, in combination with cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s earthily – muddily – textured landscape, of Malickian ruminations on the cards fate has dealt, only minus the nebulous existentialism.
Not everyone is favoured such insights – what would it serve other than to further disavow him (if that were possible), to gain access to the inner processes of Jonathan Banks’ racist monster Pappy? And Jason Clarke’s Henry, whose foolhardiness brings the McAllans to the farm, is allowed rare comment, which is interesting as his is the most self-perpetuating mind-set, tolerating the Jacksons because of economic realities but coming down on his father’s side when it’s about preserving the status quo (the scene with Ronsel being told to leave the general store by the back door).
Henry is contrasted with Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), forced to teach resignation to the way things are to his offspring in the name of self-preservation while qualifying it with the need to aspire to something better than their lot (his daughter wishes to be a stenographer, he wishes to own land, while conscious of the fragility of any rights therein for a black man; “And so I ask, what good is a deed?”) His relationship with Henry is one of take-take on the latter’s part, calling upon Hap’s help, but when Hap is in need, budging not an inch (Hap breaks his leg, but rather than lend him a mule to aid in planting the crops, Henry loans him one).
Florence (Mary J Blige, able to say much while saying very little and easy to see why she garnered that Oscar nomination) too is positioned in a place of reservation and considered distance, but the picture’s point of crossing race boundaries comes via common concerns, such that her shared motherhood with Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), while the latter (mostly) dutifully submits to her husband’s edicts, allows for a degree of tacit understanding (Laura may be “one of the good ones”). One might say that both patriarchs endure mutual hardship, but since that’s true of everyone working the land it isn’t such a communicable element, certainly not one acknowledged in any respectful manner by Henry (and Hap has little time for Henry’s introduction of a tractor).
Initially at least, Laura is the audience identification figure, a sheltered, sensitive woman rudely thrown into unfamiliar circumstances and required to sink or swim, but while we return to her inner monologue throughout, it holds gradually less prevalence and importance. Consequently, there’s a sense that the only fully developed plotline is one that forms almost halfway through the proceedings.
The friendship between Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, previously memorable as Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton), Hap’s son, and Jamie (Garret Hedlund), Henry’s younger brother, quickly becomes the core of the movie, displacing what looks at the outset to be shaping up as a love triangle between Henry, Jamie and Laura (it’s there, but ultimately tangential). Again, it is the shared experience that offers the bond, the bruised psyche of the combat veteran. We don’t have much insight into Jamie’s views on race prior to World War II, but he cites an experience when he was saved by Tuskegee Airmen in response to Ronsel querying “Why you being so nice to me?”. But as conscious as Henry is of “the way things should be”, Jamie is entirely disinterested in propping them up, and his dependency on alcohol leads to carelessness that has tragic results for Ronsel.
Ronsel has glimpsed a better life, ironically, at war (“But them Europeans don’t have a problem with us at all”), and is offered an olive branch of solace at the end of the picture (diverging from the novel, as Jordan’s forthcoming sequel finds Ronsel’s mixed-race son setting off for America to find his father). There’s a catharsis of sorts in the revenge Jamie takes on his father (“I wanted to make sure I looked you in the eye”), although he professes to feel no peace as a result. But, while the Jacksons are shown to eventually have their much-prized own place to live, there isn’t the same sense of completeness to either their or the remaining McAllans’ stories.
Rees employs a flashback structure, introducing us following Pappy’s death and with the knowledge that something has happened to make the Jacksons reluctant to help the McAllans. It’s an effective device, one informing attentions and casting a spell of foreboding over subsequent events; not all the choices in this adaptation are equally successful, but her eye for detail is unstinting, and, through observing rather than preaching, Rees communicates the manner in which, while progress has been made in legal terms, the undercurrents of discrimination persist and endure, not least generationally. The results are never less than powerful and engrossing.
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