Dee Ree’s Mudbound consists of nuanced ambiguities that make it a force of moral clarity. It confronts the ugly truths of racism—lynchings, heinous verbal abuse, forced poverty—while also gesturing at the precarious, but very possible nature of hope. I can think of so many examples in pop culture where ostensibly progressive works serve to uphold the status quo, and ultimately, privileged social groups—Zootopia, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Girls come to mind immediately. Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, Mudbound is not meant to ease guilty consciences. Instead, it maps the possibility of love and kinship within a society plagued by prejudice while also exposing the underlying structures of power that make the intentions beneath love and kinship not so clear-cut. In the film, the Black midwife Florence, who’s played by the lovely Mary J. Blige, puts its ever so clearly: “Now I know that love is a kind of survival.” She must care for a white woman’s children because if she does not, she cannot fathom what will happen to herself or her own children.
The film is about 2 families, one Black and one white, in rural Mississippi during World War II. It opens at its end—it makes no surprises, only deliberate articulations. Henry and Jamie McAllan are burying their father. Rain pours. While digging a burial spot, the older brother Henry discovers that it is already a slave grave—he can tell because there’s a bullet in the skull. He’s adamant to bury his father there. Ironically Henry demands that a Black man named Hap help them bury his father.
Much of the film’s exposition begins with the white mother, Laura, who’s brought to life through a sparse and efficient performance by English actress Carey Mulligan. A melancholy, waifish character, she’s an erudite college graduate but also an unmarried old maid at age 31. She meets Henry and marries him soon after. She’s blinded by domestic bliss until Henry’s controlling behavior shows its ugly side. He decides to take his family from their comfortable city life and move to the countryside and raise cotton crops. On the farm, Laura endures dirty conditions, a repulsively racist father-in-law, and unstable neighbors. Of the white characters, she shows a modicum of kindness to the Jacksons, a Black family who are share tenants on the land. But her kindness is conditional and self-serving. For example, she plucks Florence Jackson and offers her a job to take care of her children. She is passive when she witnesses overt displays of racism against the Jackson’s oldest son at a general store. It is a defense mechanism.
The Jacksons illuminate this urgent movie. There’s plenty of love and action to go around their large family. Though poor, the father Hap provides what he cans for his family, financially and spiritually. He’s a de facto preacher every Sunday, where a community of Black people gathers for prayer in a makeshift church in the middle of the farmland that consists of a threadbare wall with stained glass windows. They sing hymns with vigor and heart; there’s a sense of love and hope in their community that contrasts starkly with the solitary avarice of the wealthier McAllan’s.
Hap’s wife is the quiet, steady soul of the film. She’s a caring mother who’s anxious for her oldest son Ronsel to return from the war. We get glimpses of Ronsel fighting in the 761st all-Black battalion in Germany. There’s he’s a free war hero with a white German girlfriend. He returns to Mississipi and experiences the worst kinds of racism. He develops an unconventional friendship with Jamie McAllan, who had served as a war captain and suffers from PTSD. This sets Ronsel up in a dangerous situation, and Jamie later becomes complicit in Ronsel’s fate.
The cinematography in Mudbound complements its powerful story, capturing the sparseness of rural life, the grisliness of warfare, and the brief, but necessary moments of community and compassion. Yet the film still maintains controlled and cohesive as a whole. We see this in Laura’s portrayal throughout the film. In Memphis, she is dressed to the nines, wearing makeup and expensive coats as she dallies in expensive clubs and bucolic parks. On the farm, she is haggard and pale. But as a whole, she is still the same person, deferential and sad.
The storytelling in Mudbound is sublime. The film creates rich, rounded characters while also driving forward a resoundingly relevant message about the insidiousness of white supremacy.
Watch it on Netflix here.