“Mudbound ditches the simplistic notion that white nationalism only hurts black people, arguing instead that intolerance is a poison that sickens everything around it.”
Title: Mudbound (2017)
Director: Dee Rees 👩🏾🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Original novel by Hillary Jordan 👩🏼🇺🇸, screenplay by Dee Rees 👩🏾🇺🇸🌈 and Virgil Williams 👨🏽🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a sprawling epic that boasts nuanced writing, understated but powerful performances, and memorable cinematography that envelopes its rural purgatory in earthy smudges and grime. I spy just one weakness, which is conceivably more of a preference: the sluggish pace. Mudbound takes us on a beautiful, cared for trek, but at nearly 2 hours and 15 minutes long, it tells its story at a slow, Southern drawl.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Many characters exist in this work but the leading struggles—and triumphs—occur between men or across gender lines. Still, when a nutrient-rich film like Mudbound infuses every role with layers of complexity, women are lifted up as well.
In particular, we see Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), the wife of the farm owner, and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), the black matriarch of the family who lives on their land, garner several voiceovers and a large amount of screen time. While they do lean towards being defined by their male co-stars, Laura by her illicit attraction to her husband’s younger brother, and Florence by her hard-working husband and war-weary son, we do see shared experiences between the two women which are genuine, thoughtful, and intertwined with race as the power dynamic between the two mothers remain ever tilted in Laura’s favor.
Supporting female characters also inhabit this world, helping keep this category score above average. Laura has two daughters while Florence has one, and each child sees multiple lines and scenes. Florence’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), is effectively the main character of this film (see movie poster below) but his storyline is fleshed out through a German girlfriend who is, unfortunately, a very flat character who exists solely to wait for—and provide comfort to—her American soldier. Still, women are crucial to the world of Mudbound, if not its central focus.
I booted up Mudbound after watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit the night before, and the contrast was stark. Detroit tackles racism with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer while Mudbound sweeps right past the carnage, assessing the insidious effects of racism with the measured eye of a storyteller who has lived within its shackles and understands how deep its roots go.
Specifically, Mudbound shows us that “racism” isn’t just the terrorizing of black bodies. While it does portray this aspect through a vicious Ku Klux Klan scene, Rees adds layers of complexity, such as seeing white allies caught up in the destruction. Mudbound ditches the simplistic notion that white nationalism only hurts black people, arguing instead that intolerance is a poison that sickens everything around it.
Still more impressive is the way Rees charts how racism seeps across generations, burying underground into a system of oppression that may be less visible but no less damaging. After all, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) never so much as raises his voice to his sharecropper, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan). And Laura treats Florence with nothing but politeness, almost kindliness. But we see time and time again that Florence is implicitly coerced into coming to Laura’s aid, often at the expense of her own family’s needs. And Henry’s “requests” of Hap are never questioned by the black sharecropper who deeply understands the figurative boot he has on his neck.
Racism in Mudbound is pervasive, filling every inch of screen without needing to resort to overt bursts of violence beyond one harrowing incident. Its strength is its ability to convey the true face of racism: a widespread sickness that lives on in euphemism, coded language, and implicit threats.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.50/5
If Hollywood needs to continue its voracious appetite for race-based fables, then I hope we continue prioritizing storytellers with the most at stake in its disseminations: people of color. Specifically, women of color. Mudbound’s success is built on this foundation of authenticity, and it stands as a marker of what a modern slave narrative should look like.
In the broader cinematic landscape, however, as films depicting black oppression mix together into a dreamless blur of rehashed pain—Detroit, The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and countless more—I find myself looking to the future for the kinds of empowered, joyous, and (dare I hope?) non race-related stories that white actors and storytellers have enjoyed for decades.