There are films, and then there are masterpieces. Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a masterpiece. It’s difficult to translate words onto film — giving the characters and storylines vibrancy and richness especially when another person birthed those words. And yet, Rees was able to electrify Hillary Jordan’s debut novel into a sweeping cinematic epic. At a time when the country is suffocating under the vilest remnants of our history, Rees has used film to drag our past into the present — laying it at our feet.
Considering her debut indie film Pariah and her stellar HBO biopic Bessie, Rees didn’t expect to take on Mudbound. “It's funny, I wasn't aware of the book," she explained to me as we sat in a hotel suite one fall afternoon overlooking New York City’s Columbus Circle. “I read through the script first and thought okay there's a lot there and that prompted me to go back to the book and see what else I could bring forward. I ended up writing a lot more original material because it needed to be a story of two families — not just the Jackson family in service of the McAllans. I wanted to really contextualize our history, and how it's not this separated thing, it's not this disjointed thing. It's all interwoven. I wanted to try and work on this film on a thematic level and conceptual level. It's not just about racism; it's not just Black and white, it's about who we are as people and the stories we tell about ourselves versus what our story actually is and how those things connect.”
Set in Mississippi during the 1940's Mudbound centers around the McAllans — a white family who buy a farm and the Jacksons—a Black family who have been sharecroppers on the land for generations. For Rees, the beauty of this story was found in witnessing the families bang and clash against one another on this muddy cotton farm in the Jim Crow South. “I wanted to have this dark symbiosis of two families who are kind of tied to each other,” Rees explained. “With the two patriarchs Hap (Rob Morgan) and Henry (Jason Clarke), I'm dealing with this idea of disinheritance. Hap literally has bones in this land. He has blood. He has his ancestors there. But he can't take title to it. Whereas Henry buys into the land, but ironically feels like he's been disinherited. Pappy (Jonathan Banks) sold his land, so he is clinging on to this thing that he feels is rightfully his.”
Mudbound is not just a story about these families; its also a narrative about race. There’s a near constant disruption of the Jacksons' lives when Henry, his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their two daughters and Pappy arrive on the farm. Rees told me that that continuous unease the audience feels upon their arrival was deliberate on her part. “Racism is like an interruption," she reflected. “Privilege is stopping you from what you're doing. It's about this idea that your time is not your own or that you're there to help someone else. There's this presumption of your availability. And knowing that you have to do this performative thing just to survive. With the McAllan family, I wanted to explore whiteness as currency. They all have it; they just spend it differently. With the Jackson family, I wanted to explore the idea of agency and trajectory against a system that is not designed for you to move where you are. And the connection, as a Southerner, of land — to own land, and the importance of it, and territory. With this film, I really wanted to dig into that and really give each character their due and let them tell their own stories in a way and get the audience invested. I just wanted to show how all these different truths are sometimes chaffing against each other and intersecting, but it's never anyone's point of view.”
Though Mudbound explores a plethora of themes, Rees' genius is in her ability to get to the humanity of everyone involved whether they are engulfed in darkness or attempting to step into the light. Intimate scenes of Hap and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) dancing, or quietly talking are so important here. “This is a guy in love without saying anything," Rees revealed. “Hap is an optimist, he's always in the future, and I think Florence is always in the present. She understands what's happening in front of her, even though she maybe withholds that to protect her husband. In this one moment, she relaxes into him. She's able to just relax and to breathe. They're toddling on this fragile existence and finding joy in it.”
World War II also looms over the story taking Hap and Florence's eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) out of the South and overseas to Europe. “We get the feeling that each character is fighting their own fronts, and therefore that's why they kind of feel like they're all together," Rees explained. “We're more scared for Ronsel walking down that [Mississippi] street than we are for him on a fu*king battlefield with explosions going off.”
Despite its scope, Mudbound was shot over the course of 29 days mostly in Louisiana with two days in Budapest, Hungary. It seems almost astounding that Rees was able to capture the immense scale of the film with such a small amount of time. “I mean, the schedule was brutal, “ she said laughing. “It's fast. To me, it all comes down to the performances. You could have all the props and all the background you want, but if you just don't believe that acting, no matter how much money you throw at it, it's not going to work. So for me, I just put it out of my mind in a way. It was,‘Okay let's just get this scene right, let's get this moment right.’ I had to figure out where the turns are in this scene, the beat where things change. I don't leave the scene until I know the scene is working. When I'm on the set, I'm literally onset. I'm just outside the frame; I'm not in a tent somewhere, I'm not at a monitor a mile away. There's a feeling of intimacy; there's a feeling of safety.”
The hard work and the grueling schedule has already paid off; there are whispers of Mudbound being Netflix’s first Best Picture contender for the Oscars. I asked Rees if she felt any apprehension regarding all of the awards chatter. “For me, there's no anxiety. I would love for it to happen," she declared. “Just for my cast, because signing up for an ensemble show is a sacrifice because no one, necessarily, is gonna be the lead. That was a sacrifice, and they managed it beautifully. I want it for my crew, Rachel Morrison is the cinematographer, and she did an amazing job. Mako Kamitsuna, my editor and Tamar-Kali wrote the score for this; this is her first film score. Who else? Angie Wells who did makeup is a woman — it's hard to make people look like they have nothing on. I really want it because it would be an acknowledgment of the craft of the film. At the end of the day, we made art. We made art that will last. We gotta believe in what we did beyond what gets said about us.”
Mudbound will premiere in theaters and on Netflix Nov. 17.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami