“When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Lining my husband’s fingernails and encrusting the children’s knees and hair. Sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patched across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything.” – Hillary Jordan (Mudbound)
As a warring nation, America never hesitated to take slaves and put black men on the front lines to fight for freedom that wasn’t afforded to them. This was true during the American Revolution, where whole bands of black soldiers were sent in to be killed to secure the area for the white soldiers to overtake the British. It was true during the Civil War, where black men were fighting for their own freedom and once again pushed to the front lines. It was true in World War II where black soldiers were ready and willing to fight, but weren’t given the same courtesy as white soldiers. Separate but equal was never equal, only separate.
Hillary Jordan wrote the novel Mudbound in 2008. It has been adapted by Virgil Williams and Dee Rees into a film that dares to dive into the black and white world of the Jim Crow South after America helped defeat Hitler during World War II. America fought for freedom abroad, we were heroes abroad, but back at home we were still living through the long debilitating legacy of slavery and white supremacy in our country. It is an irony not lost on the characters in Dee Rees masterful epic, Mudbound.
Mudbound reflects on the two Americas in our history of war and racism. Elegantly told, deceptively serene at the beginning, Mudbound is the story of how two families, bound together by the land and the war had two very different paths in life. Two men are sent off to fight Hitler. One can return to his home as a white man, a war hero. The other is immediately trapped in the confines of segregation and racism. Yet the two form a friendship born out of the post traumatic stress they suffered in the war. All around them their families work together to hold onto what they have left. It’s clear that one will survive, strengthen at the roots and evolve out of this mess. The other, well, it isn’t so clear what fate will befall them.
Racism, that kind of deeply embedded hatred, eats at the core of so-called American values. To carry that around with you, the notion that some people are not worthy of human rights, is a burden to carry that cannot survive in a changing world, not when up against a family built on love. Mudbound isn’t sentimental -– any sentiment I’m drawing here is my own. Dee Rees, a brilliant director who has made one of the best films of the year, keeps the story raw and honest.
Most Americans would probably like to forget how systematically oppressed black Americans were after the civil war. In the South in an obvious way but throughout the country in a much more subtle but nonetheless crippling way. As much as we all wish we could leave this story behind, we can’t. We are all “mudbound,” dealing with the aftershocks of a deep shame that echoes through every industry, every historical monument, every flag. This is what we did. This is who we were. Is this who we are?
Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige play the women who are tasked with holding their families together and they don’t really have much choice in the matter of what goes on. They are, by the nature of where they come from, not allowed to do much except comfort and heal everyone else through their troubles. But we can see their anger and their frustration in their stifling destinies. The young girl who wants to be a stenographer who is told “there are no colored stenographers.” Her father answers, “She’ll be the first one.”
Rees keeps things surprising, with a camera eye that tenderly and brutally captures barely noticed moments with luscious cinematography by Rachel Morrison, and it’s clear she’s going for something more along the lines of a documentarian’s approach to the look of it rather than romanticizing the time. It had the ragged beauty of Dorthea Lange’s photographs of the Dust Bowl. When Garett Hedlund’s character builds Carey Mulligan a shower enclosure so she can have some privacy it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to her.
The more women who get to make films the more I am recognizing the deep hunger I have for their gaze, their intelligence, their approach to seeing the world from a different perspective that what we’ve been used to for decades. Although Rees doesn’t make being a female any explicit part of this film, her perspective is there, in every frame. A great director knows how to tell a good story. It isn’t easy. But if helps if your lens, your reference point is honest and true. And hers is. She is a powerful storyteller and an extraordinarily talented filmmaker.
The acting is some of the best of the year without a doubt, maybe the best ensemble acting of the year. Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell as the two homeward-bound soldiers are astonishing -– they can put up a façade of strength but what they’ve seen colors who they try to be once they’re back home. They can’t fit in this world. They can’t even ride together as friends.
It’s odd to me that Mudbound doesn’t have the kind of buzz that it should, given its reviews -– 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. It deserves a hell a lot of better than it’s getting, especially if the only reason for the muted reception is that Netflix is the distributor. If that turns out to be true, shame on the powers that be.
I’ve spent the year watching the Oscar race unfold, watching it all through a different set of eyes, now that so much of Hollywood has revealed itself to be a hunting ground all its own. It does feel as though something significant has shifted. That Dee Rees has made Mudbound — one of the best films of the year, one of the best written, best acted, best directed films of the year that needs no qualifier — is a sign that we’ve turned the page. We’re reading a new chapter and the book just got really good.
Mudbound is an honest telling of a terrible time in our American past but it’s still a story that hasn’t been all the way told. We’re trying to reinterpret it, to paste over the lies we’ve told ourselves for so long. Our sham president and his incompetent administration want it to not be true. They’re trying to tell this lie every day. Leave it to the artists to find and uncover the truth, to bring it to us through poetic language and heart-stopping beauty.