This superb movie (Another challenge to Hollywood by Netflix) is an epic, small-scale film (There could be no more than a dozen or so characters) that, confidently, tackles the huge issue of (black) servitude – the legacy of slavery – and the struggle for freedom.
The story centres on two, dirt poor, families – neighbours – in rural Mississippi. One family, the McAllan’s is White and the other, the Jackson’s is Black. After being suckered by a sheister, the McAllan’s find themselves sharing a (symbolic) common plot of mud-drenched farmland with the Jackson’s. It’s a come-down in life. They see the land as a curse. The Jackson’s see it as a blessing. But despite the commonalities of their circumstances – the unforgiving rain, a long shared history, a family structure that almost mirrors each other’s, the daily grind to eek out a living from the land- the divide of race remains a barrier that can never be surmounted.
Even seventy five years after the end of slavery, the master/slave dynamic remains hard wired into the muscle memory; into a sense of identity, bound to a status quo that demands that the Blacks know their place: one of servility and deference. The scenes of rural poverty, of people literally stuck in the mud suggest that the belief of (White) racial superiority is the only thing there is to offer these poor Whites some semblance of self-respect. Without it, there is nothing. Only poverty (and Trump).
The two women in the families, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence (a superb Mary J. Blige) share some sort of recognisably human bond (They’re both also meant to “know their place”): in times of trouble, Laura, herself trapped in a miserable life, depends on the healing hands of Florence. There are moments when human compassion and empathy override the racial relationship that defines their lives, when two people see each other as people, not racial types. But it is Poppy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), an embittered, racist KKK member, whose unrelenting hostility sets the tone.
The problem comes when the two sons, Jamie McAllan (Garret Hedlund) and Ronsell Jackson (Jason Mitchell, so very good in “Detroit”) return from the (2nd World) war. This war of liberation has for them become the theatre of their own personal liberations; their own personal epiphanies. For Jamie, the simple verities of White masters and Black slaves have been shattered by the necessarily shared values of fighting shoulder to shoulder (and by being saved by a Black fighter pilot). For Ronsell, the shock of being regarded as a liberator, as an equal, has so shifted his world-view that the demeaning servility expected of him back home becomes unbearable.
The two men form a bond, a band of brothers in a minor key.
But Jamie, with his not understood PTSS and Ronsell with his uppity ways, are strangers in their own town. And this cannot be permitted. The tradition of racism, so knitted to identity and self worth, must defend itself against the post-war disease of equality. The old ways will never yield to the new (as the KKK do their thing).
But director Dee Rees’ thesis that the individual can transcend his/her history and find fulfilment no matter the odds, leads to an ending that feels shoe-horned onto a gloomier and more honest conclusion.
It’s a minor blemish to a major work.
Apart from the excellence of this movie, there’s something radical and groundbreaking about it: many of the production crew (cinematographer, editor, composer, writer) buck Hollywood tradition: they’re mostly Black and they’re mostly women.
Way to go Netflix
MUDBOUND. Dir: Dee Rees. With: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige. Writers: Virgil Williams (Who wrote most of the “24” TV series), and Dee Rees from a book by Hilary Jordan. Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison (“Cake”); Production Designer: David Bomba (“Walk the Line”, “Godless”)