Dee Rees' 'Mudbound' is astounding and marvelously crafted (NYFF Review)

October 13 2017

I'm always disturbed by people who don’t want to talk about race — as if it’s not ingrained in the fabric of our country. To act as though race is not at the core of who we are as a people — as if race doesn’t stand at the center of how our country operates today, in the 21st century. Dee Rees’ sprawling World War II set epic, Mudbound serves up our history in a spellbinding tale of two families, one Black and one white whose lives crash together on a cotton farm in 1940’s Mississippi.

Based on the stunning 2008 debut novel by Hillary Jordan – Mudbound follows the McAllan family, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) who move from Memphis, Tennessee to rural Mississippi. Henry, desperate to put his own stamp on the world buys a cotton farm, uprooting his wife and two daughters. Endlessly grateful that her husband saved her from the fate of being an old maid when he married her at the ripe old age of 31 – Laura goes along with her husband’s plan, leaving behind her city-bred sensibilities and education for the grit, mud, and violence of the Mississippi cotton farm. With the move, she must also learn to deal with the leer of her racist, Klan-praising father-in-law Pappy (Jonathan Banks).

The McAllan’s arrival on the farm directly impacts the Jacksons – a Black family whose have teetered between sharecroppers and tenants (depending on the crop season) and whose ancestors have worked the land for generations. Florence Jackson – played quietly by Mary J. Blige- is a mother of four, healer and equal partner in her marriage to her husband Hap Jackson – a magnificent and commanding Rob Morgan of Netflix’s Marvel series. Hap is a force. He’s aware of the times in which he lives, but he’s not subservient. He’s a religious man, but he is also willing to take his destiny into his own hands.

Though the McAllans and the Jacksons coexist on the farm for a time with minimal runs ins, the end of the war brings forth major changes. The horrors of the Second World War torment Henry's brother – a charismatic and good looking fighter pilot named Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and he brings those nightmares with him to his brother’s farm when he returns home. The Jackson’s eldest son Ronsel (portrayed by a marvelous Jason Mitchell) can’t force himself to conform to the wills of the Jim Crow South after living freely as a sergeant oversees. Still reeling from the war, both men find themselves adrift in their home country and their respective homes.

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Mudbound is an exquisitely done tapestry that examines not just the intricacies of race, but other layers of humanity that have significantly impacted us throughout time. Whether it was Rees’ lens, Jordan’s words or the work of veteran screenwriter Virgil Williams — every character has a nuance and a subtly that presents them as a whole human being. Laura – though much smarter than her husband is forced into the position of caretaker—and she’s obliged to be grateful for it. Told nothing of the many plans and decisions that her husband makes, she must simply do his bidding. It's a plight of women not often highlighted in period pieces unless they are directly discussed in the narrative. Laura is as miserable as the harsh Mississippi mud that suffocates the farm – there is no need to articulate it.

Black intimacy is also highlighted in Mudbound. Still such a rarity onscreen, Rees lovingly captures the deeply reverent relationship between Hap and Florence. Other themes are prevalent here as well including — the comradery of women on the farm in spite of racial barriers, and the PTSD that plagues both Ronsel and Jamie – though in very different ways. Despite a world that tries to rip them apart, the men find themselves bound together, one getting lost in booze and another in a life that he could have had with a woman he desperately longs for.

Another striking aspect of the film is that Rees is careful to parse out the entitlement of white people. It’s not simply their blatant racism that we witness in Mudbound – but also an ingrained superiority and the privilege to just interject themselves into the lives of people of color, no matter how inconvenienced or unwilling the other party may be.

Through the muck of it all — the toxicity of the time, a war, depression, and the longing for more, Rees also interjects nuggets of tenderness that nearly choke the audience with emotion. From letters from abroad when Rosel was overseas, to miscarriages and devastating setbacks, this is not simply a moment in the Jackson and McAllan’s story— it is a life on film.

From Banks' deplorable Pappy to the Blige’s quiet but dignified Florence, Mudbound is crafted marvelously.  The film is sweeping, but the payoff — though violent, painful, and desperate is worth every single minute of Mudbound’s 135-minute runtime. Rees gets it all right in this knockout of a film.

Mudbound premiered at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 12.

The film 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

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