Racism did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. It did not end with the conclusion of the Civil War. It did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It did not end with the election of President Barack Obama. It is a deep-rooted, complex cancer; an infection whose origins date back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. America specifically is in a constant struggle to come to terms with its past atrocities, and racism looms large even as the more privileged would like to wave it off as a disease that’s long been cured. Mudbound, the new film from Pariah filmmaker Dee Rees, tackles issues of racism to powerful, moving, and thought-provoking results. It is a film brimming with rich characters, incredible performances, nuanced direction, and a pitch-perfect script, and Rees uses the backdrop of World War II America to highlight how much—and how little—our country has changed in half a century.
Based on the novel of the same name by author Hillary Jordan, Mudbound tells the story of the McAllan family, as well as the story of the black family that lives and works on their farm, the Jacksons. The film begins shortly before World War II, as Jason Clarke’s stoic, old-fashioned patriarch Henry McAllan courts and proposes to Laura (Carey Mulligan)—even as his handsome younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) seems to have more of a spark with her. Henry uproots his family—which includes Laura and his incredibly racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks)—and moves to Mississippi, where he discovers he’s been swindled out of a nice southern house. His only option is to move the family onto the farmland, which they share with the Jacksons. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his family work the land in return for payment, but this being the 1940s and all, racial tensions are still strong.
As soon as the McAllans make their move, World War II breaks out and Jamie sets off for Europe as part of the Air Force. Separately, the Jacksons’ eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) also takes up arms, joining a tank battalion. While the war is ongoing, Henry struggles to make his dreams of owning a lucrative farm come true, while Hap and his family struggle to save enough money to buy land of their own. Eventually, both Jamie and Ronsel return home very different men, and they find the deep South stewing with anti-black sentiment.
Hedlund has never been better, and he offers layers and shading to Jamie that take the character beyond just a charming drunk. It’s a terrific turn that is equal parts tragic and heroic, and the chemistry between Hedlund and Mitchell could carry an entire movie about their two characters. Indeed, Mitchell proves that his breakthrough performance in Straight Outta Compton was no fluke. He brings a vulnerability to Ronsel that undercuts the character’s hard exterior
What’s brilliant about Mudbound is that Rees is able to deftly juggle multiple points of view at the same time without shortchanging any character. We hear voiceover from Florence Jackson (an unrecognizable and terrific Mary J. Blige) that reveals her disdain for caring for Laura’s children to the neglect of her own, while her exterior remains poised and polite. And we hear voiceover from Laura revealing her frustration with her place as “the wife,” as she continues to obey the head of their household. Every character gets shading, every character feels real, and the film never falls prey to a schizophrenic or unfocused narrative. Rees’ narrative is perfectly tuned, and she stitches the film together like a complex kaleidoscope assembled by a master craftsperson*.
The kaleidoscopic approach also extends to the racial tensions. Laura is not portrayed as the film’s White Savior, nor as the disdainful, racist plantation wife. She has prejudices but also empathy; lust but also loyalty. This refusal to paint the characters as morally black or white (aside from Banks’ despicable Pappy, who’s a straight-up horrible dude) results in a terrifically fulfilling cadre of characters. They feel like human beings, not caricatures, which makes the film both more realistic and more relatable.