Dee Rees’s latest is an epic tale of racial divide in 1940s Mississippi starring Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, and Garrett Hedlund
One of the most pervasive problems with America getting to grips with its history of racial inequality has been that its white population see themselves as hardworking people struggling to survive, and so it doesn’t compute for them that they could represent oppressors. Mudbound, an epic World War II-spanning drama following one white and one black family tilling neighbouring plots of land in rural Mississippi, empathetically gets to the heart of this psychological wall. Both clans have to tussle the sodden soil, but only the black family has to take on the personal burdens of the whites in addition to their own. You might say, we are all in the gutter, but some gutters are more equal than others.
Director Dee Rees, widely celebrated for her 2011 indie hit Pariah, has vastly stepped up in scale for Mudbound, with its myriad characters and years-long scope. Carey Mulligan is the quietly disappointed wife whisked from urban society into husband Jason Clarke’s doomed scheme of farming; she pines for her brother-in-law, played by the muscular and dashing Garrett Hedlund, and tolerates her prejudiced, mean-spirited father-in-law, played unforgivingly by Jonathan Banks.
Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige give strong, upright performances as the black couple paying rent to the whites while being distracted from their own work by presumptuous impositions from Clarke. Jason Mitchell is elegant and self-assured as Ronsel, the strong, proud black son who fights in the war, finds heroism and welcome abroad and forms a friendship with Hedlund upon homecoming, yet also finds his very existence treated with contempt and violence from the community around them.
The reverberating theme of structural racism is established in a grim, sweaty opening scene: a flash-forward sequence in which the white brothers bury their father in a watery grave while also finding the remains of an executed runaway slave. It’s a magnetic draw into the material, which then spins off into various subplots and domestic drama with varying consistency.
Based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, the first hour of Mudbound employs voice-over to illustrate the interior lives of the characters, but this lyricism is dropped as the story moves into its wartime chapters. For all the journeys the film takes, you could watch the beginning and end of this movie and understand its point. What’s left is a rhythmically uneven prestige drama – but the underlying ideological concerns help Mudbound remain involving throughout. Overall it’s an intriguing, powerful example of weaving complex intellectual substance and the weight of societal tragedy with the innocuous veneer of meandering soap-operatic fiction.
Mudbound screened at London Film Festival 5, 6 and 7 Oct, and is released on Netflix later in the year