Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound is a tale of African-American misery at the hands of white predators written by a white woman to bestselling success. Dee Rees’ involvement was the sole reason I read it last year. It wasn’t so much the brutality of the novel: heavy subjects are my primary diet. The lifelessness of the Jackson family’s tenant farmers compared to the exposition on the more fortunate party’s feelings left me irritated at the inequality. Along with screenwriter Virgil Williams, Dee Rees’ film permitted the depth, respect, and camaraderie their story needed.
When Laura (Carey Mulligan), a “31 year old virgin,” marries Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), she doesn’t expect she’d become a landlady in the Mississippi Delta with their children and his racist father (Jonathan Banks). The Jacksons are an African-American family tenant farming on the land they recently purchased. As Laura and Florence Jackson (Mary J Blige) find common ground, Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Florence and Rob’s (Rob Morgan) son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from World War II, making houses more filled and tensions more volatile.
Taking the lax novel and pulling the clever bits together with some poetic voice over, the film gains personality in its brilliant ensemble. Carey Mulligan’s rumination on death is biting in her Southern drawl. Hedlund is a gentleman turned damage veteran, gravitas with his grandeur. Banks is hateful as a natural villain, and Rob Morgan’s father is a glue to refuse insults to his family’s intelligence or limitations on potential. Jason Mitchell captures the camera. Approaching his father, staring deeply, gave me the misties. Mary J. Blige, greatly improved from her Wiz Live debut, has some juicy moments but maintains a serene, motherly confidence.
Beautifully crafted with award worthy cinematography, costumes, and editing, the film rises above a race relations drama as a timely reminder of the inequity between parallel families. The McAllans are limited by the path they take their privilege, regardless of who they step on along the way. The Jacksons are limited by society’s treatment of them despite their determination and intelligence. Dee Rees gave the story the eye it needed. Communities best know how to portray their stories, and I hope to see films like this to become a trend.