‘Mudbound’ powerfully tackles tradition and race

In this Jan. 21, 2017 file photo, director Dee Rees, clockwise from left, actors Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, middle row center, pose for a portrait to promote the film, "Mudbound" during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)

In this Jan. 21, 2017 file photo, director Dee Rees, clockwise from left, actors Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, middle row center, pose for a portrait to promote the film, "Mudbound" during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)

Carl, a farmhand for the McAllan family in “Mudbound,” is kicked off the farm because he killed a horse who was acting up. The horse was the McAllan’s property by law, but Carl broke that bond so he had to be punished. “Mudbound” is a story of these broken covenants and what people will do to uphold the established bonds in our society.

The film is the most recent Netflix Original movie and, to this point, the strongest of the company’s catalogue. Director and co-writer Dee Rees delves into the lives of two families in rural Mississippi as they try to negotiate the perils of farm life and racism in a post-WWII America. The opening scene, set during a massive thunderstorm, gives “Mudbound” an epic, even biblical quality. The film is concerned with lofty ideas of race and justice but rarely strays into the esoteric, the exceptions being the two voiceovers that introduce our two families, the McAllans and the Jacksons.

These two families live in a poor delta farmtown. The Jacksons, a black family trying to move up and out of the town contrast with the McAllans, a white family just trying to recover from the broken bond that landed them there in the first place. The two families mirror each other, as they both lose a hand on the farm to the war effort but the experience of the two men when they return highlights the racism inherent in the Jim Crowe south.

“Mudbound” joins the likes of “Sunset Boulevard” and “Memento” in their use of an opening scene that is actually the last scene. This age-old tactic works to perfection here. The added tension and stakes are necessary because the movie largely operates as a melodrama, which could lose some people if they have no knowledge of where the film will end. This is even more true for a Netflix audience who clicks on movies with less investment than those who see “Mudbound” in the theaters.

Pappy, played menacingly by Jonathan Banks of “Breaking Bad”, is the grandfather of the McAllan clan and face of the white patriarchy that controls the town under Jim Crowe laws. As a bastion of the old social bonds of the south, Pappy is challenged by Ronsel, who is empowered by his time as a liberator in the military. This dynamic is another example of covenants being challenged and is the film’s strongest subplot.

Every time Pappy is on-screen is nerve-wracking and this is amplified when he is around Ronsel. A particularly strong scene comes when Ronsel tries to use the front door of a convenience store in town but is stopped by Pappy and a friend. The situation is dealt with by the father of the McAllan family, Henry, who takes Pappy’s side and demonstrates the overpowering force of racism in the town. This scene is broken down by director Dee Rees herself in a video essay produced by The New York Times.

The idea of coping with trauma is a throughline of this film. Jamie and Ronsel, fellow veterans, cope with PTSD by kindling a friendship and drinking a fair amount of alcohol. From a more societal level, the black community, lead by preacher Hap Jackson, copes with discrimination in the Jim Crowe south through the strength of their church. The most powerful scene in “Mudbound” comes during a song by Hap and his congregation. Taking place a half-built church, the song sounds empty and weak as the voices do not echo off of any walls. As the song builds, the sound editing changes and the song sounds like it is being sung in a cathedral. This small touch says so much about the black community finding strength and confidence within their church and coping with the pressures of an intensely racist environment.

Hap Jackson’s refrain, “What good is a deed?” is at the thematic heart of “Mudbound” and mined so thoroughly that it could be said by every character in the film and apply to their story. From Carey Mulligan’s Laura questioning her bond of marriage to Mary J. Blige’s stand-out performance as midwife Florence Jackson, who is bound by duty and love to care for the children. The strong thematic elements of “Mudbound,” on top of a tightly written melodrama about race and family ties makes the film one of the strongest of the year.


Teddy Craven is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.craven_jr@uconn.edu.