“Mudbound” Movie Review


     Once again, Netflix enters the Oscar race via unconventional means, yet armed with an important story to tell.  “Mudbound”, a gloriously shot post World War 2 melodrama about two men, one black and one white, returning home to Mississippi as heroes, only to face the harsh realities of racism, was given a platform Oscar qualifying release in theaters earlier this year. But the plan and intention here is for the film to be viewed exclusively on Netflix by its millions of subscribers.  It’s the kind of premium content viewers should certainly take advantage of.  Not because it saves you a trip to the theater, but rather it is an opportunity to see awards caliber work by a promising filmmaker in Dee Rees and a film with a strong message that adds positive fuel to the debate on race relations of which we are still (sadly) having today.  

     Based on the novel by Hilary Jordan and adapted for the screen by Rees and Virgil Williams, “Mudbound” explores the relationships between a white family and a black family who own parts of an expansive farming area in rural Mississippi as World War 2 begins in the early 1940s.  At first, the story centers on Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), a white man who has dreams of someday owning a farm and creating a prosperous life for his family.  He believes he has done just that, when he moves his family out of town after putting a deposit down on a larger home surrounded by acres of land.  Unfortunately, he finds he has been swindled out of his money after discovering the true owner of the property is not the person he actually made the deal with.  The situation forces him and his family to take residence in a small shack located on the other side of the property where the poorer farm hands live.

     This is taken well by Henry’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), but his father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), puts up a fight when he learns they will be in the same area as a black family who own a small portion of the farm.  Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) work hard each day and are proud of the small plot of farming land they do own.  Both have plans of someday owning a much larger farm, and their children speak of accomplishing great things, even when the road blocks placed in their path seem insurmountable.  Ultimately, the families have no choice but to interact with one another, a situation you get the idea all would rather have avoided.  That’s because this time period in Mississippi, as well as the majority of the country, were still rotting in the kind of overt racism that had black people being treated as second class citizens.  And Pappy proves to be the kind of person, who at an older age, cannot seem to let go of the past and continues to be the primary antagonist towards a group of people who still had no way of standing up for themselves without severe and unwanted consequence.  Not to mention the period is still decades away from the Civil Rights Movement, meaning though slavery had been abolished for more than 75 years, black people in the South still existed in a sort of no man’s land where acceptance by their white counterparts was unheard of.

     Often times, it takes a life changing experience to show someone just how wrong they have been for their entire lives judging a person solely by the color of their skin.  In the case of “Mudbound”, each of the families has one member sent to war.  Henry’s younger brother, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), a brash and confident man, is sent to pilot bombers flown high above Germany in the war against Hitler.  On the ground, Hap and Florence’s oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), is now part of a tank crew, fighting dozens of blood soaked battles against a very formidable enemy and displaying the kind of heroism most will never really understand.  They never meet during the war, but both have important experiences while there.

     During his off time, Ronsel finds that the German women he meets (who are white) do not have the same racial bias as those at home, nor are black soldiers treated any different than the white soldiers by the German people who are grateful for their presence there.  Jamie also has a life altering situation unfold.  One that completely changes his perceptions as well, but is better left to be seen in the film since Rees handles the sequence masterfully.  When the war ends, the two head home to Mississippi, but the homecoming is substantially different for each, even with the chest full of medals they have both earned with plenty of blood, sweat, and tears.

     The third act of “Mudbound” moves into the kind of excruciating and difficult to watch territory of films that carried a similar message such as the 2013 Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave” and Nate Parker’s 2016 slave rebellion story “The Birth of a Nation”.  There’s plenty of historical significance in what Rees shows us and where the story takes each of the characters involved, but it’s actually the more pleasant scenes late in the film that have the most impact.  The relationship between two men who have served their country and watched others die for it is what makes watching “Mudbound” so special.  You could turn down the lights in the scenes with Jamie and Ronsel, so as to not know who is black and who is white, and you would still hear powerful and emotional conversations about experiences shared, friends who were lost, and what it really means to be a part of something so much bigger than yourself.  Race no longer matters to these men, and it shouldn’t matter to us either.

     From top to bottom, the performances are excellent.  Throughout, you get the feeling Pappy is the last in a long line of proud white men who will do anything to preserve his race’s illogical and misguided standing.  Caught in the middle are two brothers, both who have had similar convictions due to their upbringing, but have also been a part of circumstances that led each of them to question their family’s beliefs.  Hap does what any good father would do and works for his family until he literally has nothing left, all the while knowing the calming influence Florence will have on him and their children as they struggle to hold everything together.  Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan, and Mary J. Blige form one of the better ensembles of the year alone, but the work by Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell is what drives the core of the story.  Each of them deliver awards worthy performances.  In addition, the cinematography by Rachel Morrison is breathtaking, adding to the film a look and feel that contributes in much the same way the work of Robert Richardson did for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”.  But all of this is made possible by Rees who turns in the finest work of her career, delivering a film with a positive message, even though it’s a tough ride getting there.  GRADE: A