Sunday 10 January 2021

Movie Review: Mudbound (2017)

A sprawling drama, Mudbound is the story of two families, one white and one Black, co-existing in segregated Mississippi of the 1940s. Friendships, racism, joint experiences, and the struggle to make a living all pose challenges to the various family members.

In the early 1940s, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) of Memphis relocates with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), two daughters, and his racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks) to a farm he just bought in Mississippi. The Black Jackson family, consisting of Hap (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and other children, are already tenanted on the land.

The two families get along uneasily, Hap working the land for lowly pay, Florence hired by Laura to help around the house, but Pappy always ready to spew his hatred. When the United States enters the Second World War, Ronsel serves as a tank commander while Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) joins the air force as a bomber pilot. Both return to the farm as changed men and strike up a camaraderie. Jamie drinks heavily to combat his post-war trauma while Ronsel, after helping defeat fascism, finds it difficult to accept entrenched segregationist attitudes. But much worse is to come for both men.

An adaptation of the 2008 book by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is traditional but still captivating story telling. Director Dee Rees co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, and creates a rich slice of American history, carrying echoes of slavery and vivid portrayals of segregation, injustice, war, and the green shoots of potential healing between oppressor and oppressed.

The evolving tensions between the races underpin the drama. The virulent Pappy is a lost cause, and despite his advancing age remains capable of enormous harm in words and actions. Henry is more tolerant but nevertheless obtuse in his attitude towards the Jacksons. Laura treats Florence with more respect, but feels entitled enough to have Florence care for Laura's children at the expense of Florence's family. And finally Ronsel and Jamie are the future, two men exposed to the world and experienced in what unites humanity, and now well beyond judging each other by skin colour. But in 1940s rural Mississippi, their friendship is an unacceptable aberration. 

At two hours and 14 minutes the running time is stretched, and the middle act sags into relatively routine "day in the life" chapters, never less than engaging but definitely lacking in impetus. This arrives in the final 30 minutes, a harrowing reminder of the horrors lurking in the rural South where seeing a Black man sitting in the front passenger seat of a white man's truck is cause enough for bigoted outrage.

Although some scenes are too dark, Rachel Morrison's cinematography celebrates the perpetual mud and rain essential to give a life of hard toil and farming a chance. The ensemble cast members each get a few scenes to shine (and provide snippets of narration from multiple perspectives), but are not asked to stretch as most of the characters are familiar and tightly drawn within a small arc.

Two families representing history in progress, Mudbound is rich soil, suitable for burying the painful past and building difficult foundations for the future.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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