Writer and director Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie) and Virgil Williams have adapted Hillary Jordan's acclaimed 2008 novel for the screen. She has incorporated the literary device of telling the story through six narrators, giving us varied accounts of the racial hatred and violence in the Jim Crow South of the 1940s.
Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) has married late, escaping an old maid’s life with her family in Memphis. She and her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) have moved to Mississippi Delta to start a new life. She describes their home: "When I think of the farm I think of mud. Encrusted knees and hair. Marching in boot shaped patches across the floor. . . . I dreamed in brown."
Henry, a former engineer, is delighted to have his own land and throws himself in the farm work with the sun beating down and the hard ground barely yielding to the plow. He oversees several tenant farmers, including an African-American family headed by Hap (Rob Morgan) and his devoted wife Florence (Mary J. Blige). Although they have worked this land for years, the law recognizes “a deed, not deeds.”
Hap’s family are sad and worried when Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), their oldest son, is dispatched to Europe as a member of the 71st Tank Battalion called the Black Panthers. When he returns home after World War II, he is unhinged by the challenges of readjusting to civilian life, especially the virulent racism in town.
Much to the surprise of both men, Ronsel is befriended by Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), Henry's brother who has just returned from serving in the Air Force. Unable to talk to anyone else about their war experiences, the white airman who drinks too much and the earnest African American stand by one another as racial tensions accelerate in the community.
Dee Rees has done an exquisite job drawing out the nuances in this ensemble piece. Perhaps the stand-out performance is by Rob Morgan who portrays the head of the Jackson clan. Besides his duties as a hard-working farmer, a wise and emotional father, and a sensitive husband, he serves as preacher at a half-constructed church. He has learned to walk the delicate balance of maintaining his dignity while acquiescing to the realities of life for people of his race and station. He tells his son, “There’s no point in fighting. They are just going to win anyway.”
Mudbound is an insightful history lesson that shows how southern whites, threatened by changes they perceived in their world, turned African-Americans into scapegoats for all their troubles. The film sounds another call to resist any acceptance of the terrible scourge of racism during both past and present times.
The creative people behind this cogent and hard-hitting drama want us to come face-to-face with the dehumanization and bigotry of racism and its violent offshoots which isolate people from each other and destroy communities. There is a flicker of hope and grace and love at the end of Mudbound, and we appreciate this needed gesture of hope amid the troubling and deflating picture of the toll of hatred and division.