The white farmers digging a grave for their father in the opening scene of Mudbound are about five feet down when they run into a problem: piles of bones suggest that the area has already been used as a cemetery of sorts for former slaves. It’s an inconvenience to them, but so much more for the movie, which at its best captures the way racial oppression has seeped into the very soil of America.
Mudbound, directed and co-written by Dee Rees (Pariah), is a conventional historical epic in some ways, a radical one in others. Set mainly on a ragged farm in 1940s Mississippi, the movie is handsomely shot and impressively assured, with the stature of an old-fashioned prestige picture. But its concerns are more urgent than that description suggests, its emotions rawer than you might expect.
Rees and her co-screenwriter, Virgil Williams, are drawing from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, and indeed Mudbound has a literary quality to it. If the movie’s opening images of a bedraggled family carrying a coffin across a sodden landscape don’t bring to mind William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the conceit of employing multiple narrators should. The first voice we hear is that of Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), a damaged World War II veteran who has returned to work on his brother’s farm. We later hear voiceover narration from that brother, Henry (Jason Clarke), as well as his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who has somewhat regretfully made the move to Mississippi from Memphis at her husband’s insistence. And, crucially, we hear the thoughts of the members of the Jackson family, African-American tenants who rent portions of Henry’s land. This includes father Hap (Rob Morgan), mother Florence (Mary J. Blige), and son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who also served in WWII and is having as difficult of a time readjusting to civilian life as Jamie.
That’s a lot of voices, yet Rees and her editor, Mako Kamitsuna, interweave them beautifully. It helps that the dialogue itself, perhaps taken directly from Jordan’s novel, is poetic rather than purely informational. The harshness of life on this farm, for instance, is captured in Laura’s voiceover observation that living in the country means “forever being assailed by dead things.” As we hear Laura’s thoughts, Rees cuts to an insert shot of a stiff mouse at her foot, then the decaying corpse of an opossum in the field. While Laura continues to talk we see Florence, at the Jacksons’ homestead, breaking the neck of a chicken. The camera then returns to Laura as she cleans a rifle and comments on her own participation in the killing of animals on the farm: “My hands did these things, but I was never easy in my mind.”
Mudbound is insistent on making the black experience an equal part of white American history.
It’s crucial that this montage, though presented from Laura’s point of view, makes room for Florence. This is the radical magic of Mudbound. From that opening scene, with the appearance of the slaves’ bones, the movie is insistent on making the black experience an equal part of white American history, resulting in a history that is more complete. And so even the opening section in Memphis, which focuses primarily on the McAllans, includes lingering shots of the black servants or musicians who make this privileged society function. Later, on the farm in Mississippi, the use of montage and parallel editing connects the McAllans and the Jacksons, who may work the same land but inhabit different worlds. When these worlds do come together, the tension is always at the forefront. Consider the possessive authority with which Henry McAllan knocks on the Jacksons’ door, as well as the silence with which his rapping is initially greeted. Power lies on one side of the door; fear on the other.
There are other instances in which Mudbound creates parallel perspectives of the same event. At one point, Laura’s young children fall seriously ill. With the doctor too far away, she desperately calls on Florence to help, never mind that Florence has children of her own to care for. There is sympathy for Laura’s fears in the scene, yet at the same time we hear Florence’s voiceover recollection of the times her mother left her as a child to care for the children of white women. Now doing the same thing, she describes it as an act of love, noting that “love is a kind of survival.” If the white landowners suffer, Florence knows, her family will suffer tenfold.
I’ve given plenty of attention to the use of voiceover, and while it is crucial (Mudbound’s spell fades when there is less of it in the second half) the film isn’t entirely reliant on the technique. Rees also employs more cinematic touches that are just as effective. Jamie, noticing Laura’s shame at having to bathe in a tub in the front yard, builds her a bucket shower with a privacy fence. Her first time using it, at dusk, involves no voiceover at all and is one of the film’s fleeting moments of beauty. Later, there is a wonderful touch at Hap and Florence’s church, where the congregation’s raggedy singing gives way to the sounds of a professional choir on the soundtrack.
Mudbound also benefits from performances that are excellent nearly across the board, save for a strident child performance or two and Jonathan Banks as Henry and Jamie’s virulently racist Pappy. (I’m sure that sort of blatant hatred existed, but Banks plays it as cartoonish villainy.) Hedlund and Mitchell, as the war veterans who have both been traumatized and enlightened by their service, prove equally adept at hitting notes of charm and sorrow, depending on the needs of the scene. Mulligan, meanwhile, is transformative, as she traces Laura’s descent from happiness to bone-weary exhaustion. Best of all might be Blige. As Florence, she is the movie’s searing conscience, with a glare so full of truth that—for her family’s sake—she has to hide it at times behind darkened shades.
Mudbound hides nothing, particularly in a violent climax that plays as pure horror (Get Out, indeed). At one point, before things go to hell, Henry talks about the difference between dirt and land: namely, ownership. What his speech leaves out is the very thing the movie makes room for: the way dirt and land and blood can mix together—as do the various voiceovers when they join in chorus at the end of the film—to form something more akin to mud.