Over recent years, we have seen a wide range of films tackle racism across a number of genres, from 12 Years a Slave to The Birth of a Nation, I Am Not Your Negro to Get Out, among many others. While all gained some level of critical acclaim, the former two films came under criticism due to the severity of the violence, which took some of the audience out of the film.
While it’s absolutely understandable that the realities are shown as bluntly as possible, when the lead characters involved are nothing more than ciphers, lacking character development essential for our investment, the film never truly earns its natural human drama.
Now we have Dee Rees‘ film, Mudbound, a period drama about racism starring a great pool of talent like Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund among others. After gaining fantastic buzz from Sundance, the film was acquired by Netflix (where it’s now streaming internationally), and now, the film is proving to garner some real Best Picture Oscar buzz for the online streaming platform. But will it get the audience it deserves?
The film stars Carey Mulligan as Laura McAllan, who is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm, a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land.
Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), Laura’s brother-in-law, is everything her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) is not – charming and handsome, but he is haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, now battles the prejudice in the Jim Crow South.
Going off the synopsis, the seeds of drama are all planted firmly, the potential for genuine human drama is high and the cast and crew are all capable of great things, so does Mudbound live up to the hype?
The answer is a resounding yes. One of the factors that makes Mudbound more successful than its thematic predecessors is its subtlety. Instead on overly relying on violence, director Dee Rees relies more on mood and character to not only get its point across, but to deliver a compelling film.
The main credit goes to cinematographer Rachel Morrison, as she helps create a beautiful look that always has a sense of foreboding that something bad will happen. There are moments of sheer brutality, including a scene that made me wince, but they are relegated to the third act, they have palpable buildup until that point and it never revels in gore or shock tactics.
The story itself feels surprisingly contemporary, despite its World War II setting, showing that Americans are bound to their place of land, accumulating all of the prides and prejudices that come with it. The storytelling is incredibly balanced, as Rees is able to juggle six lead characters all at once with ease, particularly with the editing by Mako Kamitsuna and with the use of voice-over.
While it could’ve been used lazily to excuse the acting chops of the cast, instead it’s a refreshing way of showing character development. All characters deliver their own, usually contrasting with how they act on the outside e.g. Laura’s view on being a housewife despite maintaining the status quo for her husband, or how Florence dislikes taking care of Laura’s children, despite showing a positive exterior.
It even gradually reveals more facets about the characters, making them more than just one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, as well as thematic symbols of the story. Aside from Johnathan Banks‘ despicable character, none of the characters are portrayed to be morally simplistic, focusing on the morally grey areas; the contradictions that makes them human.
In the case of Laura, she is not portrayed as sadistic nor is she a white saviour. She does lust over another character and yet she is loyal to her husband; she has pointed criticisms towards the land and people she now resides in, but she does have empathy and understanding. It is the care and effort towards character that makes Mudbound succeed as much as it does.
But none of it would be effective if it weren’t the actors, who deliver wonderfully nuanced performances. Mulligan unsurprisingly delivers on the facets of her character with aplomb while Hedlund transcends his character of being a charming drunk and adds layers of humanity and turmoil convincingly to his performance. Clarke gives good work, portraying both human decency as well as his prejudice passed down from his father, very well.
Mitchell is fantastic as Ronsel, especially in contrast of his feeling of belonging when he’s at war and his feeling when he comes back to his hometown, brimming with racial tension. Blige and Morgan portray their roles with warmth and brimming tension towards the life they’re living in while Banks is absolutely despicable as his Klan-member character and father of Jamie and Henry.
Much like the characters in the film, the story isn’t all one foreboding mood signalling doom and gloom, but there are fleeting moments of hope, moments of sympathy and empathy between characters and it never feels phoney nor unearned, leading towards the optimistic ending that Rees nails.
Overall, Mudbound fixes the problems of similar films having one-dimensional characters and excessive violence used to gain sympathy, with particular attention to character, mood and subtlety and that’s thanks to director Dee Rees and her wonderful cast and crew. And that might just be enough to deliver Netflix its first Academy Award for a feature film.
Mudbound is on Netflix now.