When there’s historical blackness in film, it’s usually displayed through slavery or Jim Crow. There’s never really any in between. But there is a very palpable significance in remembering, reliving and recognizing black history and respecting how far we’ve come (even though 2017 mirrors the past more times than we’re comfortable with).
I guess that’s what is so important: the mirroring of our past, reflected in our present, to keep us woke. That’s what makes some (read: people suffering through white guilt) either squirm in their seats when watching this type of “entertainment” or avoid it at all costs.
The Root 100 honoree Dee Rees wrote the screenplay to Mudbound with Virgil Williams, based on the book by Hillary Jordan. One of my favorite parts of Rees’ version of Mudbound is how she relies on the characters’ narration of their plights to carry the story along. It’s as if their inner thoughts pull you in and make you a part of their world. You hear Mary J. Blige’s character, Florence Jackson, speak of her son, Ronsel, whom you watch go off to fight on the front lines of World War II, and she says, “I held his heartbeat in my hands—” Immediately you realize that you’re in for something deeper than you may be ready for.
When you think of the word “mud,” you’re immediately surrounded by stiff, thick, filthy earth you want to stay away from. But that wasn’t the case for the farmers and sharecroppers in rural Mississippi. They were surrounded by, steeped in and almost defined by the mud—hence: Mudbound.
Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Blige) are tenant farmers in Mississippi, and the land they work is purchased by a white man, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke). This is a man who hardly has any common sense, no real business sense and an icebox where his heart used to be. He pulls his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), and their two daughters wherever he sees fit to move them, hoping for golden opportunities to keep his family well within their privilege. And that privilege is apparent, even though the McAllans are forced to slum it with the “Negroes” who work the farm.
The Jacksons represent the black family who try against all odds to make their way out of the expected. Both Hap and Florence work tirelessly to make sure their children are clothed and fed and still have the capacity to dream farther than the mud in front of them. It just hurts watching and knowing that black poverty is worlds apart from white poverty.
Even when Henry moves his privileged family onto the farm, he is still above all the people who have broken their backs for that land. He and his family are allowed to walk into stores through the front door, drive miles around the farm in their cars and demand that someone else help them with their children, even though Henry’s wife, Laura, is a stay-at-home mom.
Hap and Florence’s oldest son, Ronsel, returns from war and befriends Henry’s veteran brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and that friendship continues the exposure to the narrative of inequality that frustrates you throughout the film. As a soldier, Ronsel saw the world outside of America and experienced a freedom that the land of the free couldn’t and wouldn’t offer up to him. It has made returning home bittersweet; he is tortured in his longing to be treated like a human being and finds camaraderie in Jamie.
Jamie acts as a conscience against racism. Naturally, a white savior shows up in these narratives, and I think it helps to ease white guilt, but the way Rees and Williams wrote the Jamie character shows the complicated reality of how a man is raised one way, experiences the world and then tries against all that surrounds him to show up differently than he’s been taught.
But Jamie’s character isn’t perfect. He suffers through post-traumatic stress disorder and uses alcohol as a coping mechanism. His father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), is the most racist villain in the movie and antagonizes everyone who isn’t him—even his own sons. At one point, Hap tells his son (who had to apologize for putting Pappy in his place): “No use in fighting. They just gonna win every time.”
That line socked me right in my ribs! And so did this movie. While each actor gave a performance that is easily Oscar-worthy, the women of the film stuck with me. Watching Blige’s character, Florence, leave her own children to attend to Laura McAllan’s, and take on her husband’s job when he was injured, left my face stained with tears. The experience of black women having to take nanny jobs and neglect their own children is common throughout history and even now. And somehow, those black’s women’s children still have to push through life without having their mothers there to help guide and rear them.
Isn’t there a proverb that says black women get shit done? Florence proves this. There’s no job too big or too belittling for her. Everything she does is for the elevation of her family. In the 1940s, it was common for men to be the head of the household, and there was no questioning or alternatives. This is a very apparent theme in Mudbound, but it is also obvious that if the man is the head, the woman is the neck.
Florence and Laura show how women of those times stayed silent but also had a magical quality in allowing the man to think he’s making decisions, when it’s really the woman’s plan all along. In The Root’s interview with Blige and Mulligan, they share what it took to play these seemingly meek but obviously strong female characters:
The beauty of Mudbound is that it’s on Netflix (premiering Nov. 17), so you can watch at your own pace. I walked out of the controversial movie Detroit because of the repetitive torture inflicted on black bodies, but I stayed in my seat for Mudbound because Dee Rees offered something that Kathryn Bigelow couldn’t: heart and storylines.
Yes, there is lynching. Yes, the word “nigger” will ring in your ears. Yes, there are members of the Ku Klux Klan in this film. But there’s also a story of resilience, the strength of fighting for a country that doesn’t even want you in it, the stability of an unbreakable family structure and a bird’s-eye view of how racism is bigger than all of us. Well done, Dee Rees.