As if it were lifted right from the mind of William Faulkner, “Mudbound“ is a Southern saga of Americans dealing with the nuanced drama of racism and poverty in rural Mississippi. Director Dee Rees is a force to be reckoned with, nearly worthy of Faulkner’s legacy.
Rees, with the help of an excellent ensemble cast, paints an unflinching portrait of a Southern family. Henry McAllan and his wife Laura move from Memphis to the rural farmland of the Mississippi Delta, hoping to incur wealth and legacy. He employs Hap and Florence Jackson, black Americans who have lived on the land for generations, as sharecroppers.
The families’ trajectories overlap and contrast. The McAllans and Jacksons both send a son off to war, but as Henry and Laura’s marriage disintegrates, Hap and Florence’s family grows closer in their emotional bond, drawing a resonant point about where the humanity truly lies in the remnants of a society with roots in enslavement.
Henry, played by a gruff Jason Clarke, is the legacy-obsessed white Southerner archetype, determined to attain the promise of wealth in exchange for sending his entire family down into a spiral of discontent. He drives away his wife, a reliably excellent Carey Mulligan, into his brother’s arms.
Garret Hedlund, the brother who has returned from war and settled into a comfortable position as a drunkard and town provocateur, strikes up a friendship with Hap and Florence’s veteran son, Ronsel. They bond over their post-traumatic stress and distaste for rural Mississippi, and the film’s conflict is borne out of their social and racial divide.
The real star of the film is Jason Mitchell, who portrays Ronsel. Displaying a range of expressions from dignified grace to panicked horror, the New Orleans native encompasses the internalization of 1960s racism with the composure of his pained smile and the glimmer in his tired eyes.
Mary J. Blige, who plays Florence, and Rob Morgan, who plays Hap, are also fantastic, giving understated and resilient performances. They bring out the pain and humanity of “Mudbound.”
A film whose climax, involving a perfectly-cast racist Jonathan Banks, will evoke thoughts of recent events in Charlottesville. It’s painful to watch and more painful to reflect on how unsurprising the scene is.
Dee Rees is a confident and ambitious director, and “Mudbound” is a gorgeous film. Following 2011’s “Pariah” and 2015’s “Bessie,” an HBO original movie starring Queen Latifah, Rees should be a bonafide star at this point.
“If I were a white guy who had done ‘Pariah,’ my next film would have been huge,” Rees said, in an interview with Variety. “I do think there’s a different trajectory. Films are talked about differently. It’s like a film by an independent black director gets talked about for who made it, not for what the film is.”
Hopefully, the film is recognized by the Oscars, especially for its phenomenal black actors. If nominated, Rees could be the first black woman to be considered for an Academy Award for Best Directing. Perhaps, “Mudbound’s” Southern grit and honest storytelling will deservedly put Rees’s grievances to bed and earn her a place in Oscar history.
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