I tend to be a bit of an emotional sponge, so it takes planning and determination to put myself through some films, particularly intense realist dramas. I’m easier with books, as language provides an intellectual buffer. Films, on the other hand, shoot straight to the unconscious, or at least hit me in the feels a lot harder. This can be true whether the film is good or bad, as sometimes I get stuck with problem elements (e.g. character portrayals and especially plot/script) and spin them in my mind and heart for a long time after the film. And this can happen whether the film has a “happy” ending and satisfying closure or not.
Mudbound (2017) hit me, but not as hard as it might have. The film features a wonderfully strong ensemble cast, some powerful personal politics, and some painful tragedy. Few characters emerge unscathed, and the worst gets his due…eventually. For me, the one weakness of the film was its split attention, which one can see by looking at the various Netflix posters for the film. So, I’ll start there.
The ensemble image chooses to center on Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), eldest son of the Jackson family, who goes off to World War II as a Sargeant in a black tank command, and returns shaken, but also having seen ways of living quite different from that of his Mississippi home. He looks straight out of the image at us, hat tipped jauntily and with determination in every inch of him we can see. The second row features the two central female characters. Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is the wife of back row figure Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), a woman who married at 30 to the first man to pay attention to her and who is determined to be a good wife and mother, even when life turns sour. A middle-class white woman, she endures farm life in filth with Henry’s sexist and racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks) and gladly utilizes all the help she can get from Ronsel’s mother, Florence (Mary J. Blige), her equal and opposite-facing second row partner in this image. Florence is more stoic than Laura, having lived through far more from birth through the WWII era in which we encounter her. She is strong, determined, self-sacrificing, and magnetic. Again, in many ways the opposite of Laura, who does all she can to be strong and determined, though her sacrifices clearly do not equal Florence’s. Along with Pappy, the third row features Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), a man determined to own his own land someday, who loves and respects his family with an engaging but never macho paternalism. Finally, behind row two but bigger than row three is Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), who has all the charm his brother Henry lacks, until WWII knocks it out of him and reduces him to a broken alcoholic who befriends Ronsel with good intentions and unavoidably messy results. This choice of image structure makes clear this is Ronsel’s story. In many ways it is…and isn’t.
Now consider a few more images:
In the first, it’s Laura’s story, and all about what she thinks. The beginning of the film suggests this may be true, as does the original novel by (white writer) Hillary Jordan, on which the film is based. That the novel was given the Barbara Kingsolver Prize says much, too, as the first third of the film does remind me a bit of Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, about a missionary, his wife, and the people they encounter in the Congo. The book is told from the wife’s perspective, which allows us to see and critique the limits of patriarchal western/Christian culture, but does not offer us fully developed black African characters. Some of the most compelling Congolese women, for instance, don’t even get names. It also reminds me a touch of Jane Campion’s The Piano, when Laura draws her marital line in the sand over her cherished piano, her last link to white, privileged-class culture. The middle image continues the suggestion that it is Laura’s story, with her hands on her hips in proto-feminist fashion as the McAllans face the mud together.
Laura’s is an important but limited perspective on gender and race relations in sexist and racist worlds, and personally I’ve seen enough of it. Even more misrepresentative is the third image above, in which the color line is clear and direct, and all about white vs. black men. This is an undercurrent in the film, but just as the first two images reduce the importance of race to the film, so the third image removes women, reducing the film to its focus on race (and class).
Moving from images to awards, we can learn more about the film. African American female director/screenwriter Dee Rees definitely saw the limits of the “white woman who exists between white males and black folk” structure. She and co-writer Virgil Williams reworked the Jordan novel to expand the roles and importance of the Jackson family, individualizing the children, deepening the parents, and fully telling Ronsel’s story and centrality. This wasn’t easy to achieve. And while as a viewer I felt the overall film didn’t gel as well as fully might in trying to let all the major characters speak their truth (literally, with a roving first-person voiceover), this did bring Rees and Williams an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Mary J. Blige was also nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for her moving portrayal of Florence Jackson and for Best Original Song (“Mighty River”).
Finally, re the Academy Awards, the film had an additional nomination: Best Cinematography, by Rachel Morrison, the first ever nomination of a woman in this category. This is important not only because Morrison is a fantastic cinematography (just look at Black Panther!), but also because increasing diversity in roles like director can bring even more diversity behind the scenes. P.S. Inclusion Rider!
Mudbound, however, took no Oscars. Ditto Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards. What the film did win came from smaller festivals and Black and Women’s groups: African American Film Critics Association (Best New Media), Alliance of Women Film Journalists (Best Ensemble Cast), Black Film Critics Circle Awards (Best Supporting Actress – Mary J. Blige; Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Ensemble), and Black Reel Awards (Outstanding Supporting Actor – Jason Mitchell; Outstanding Ensemble; and Outstanding Original Song).
There is more I could say about the film, including what risks it does and does not take. For example, it takes too little risks in terms of the complexities of intimacy, particularly in its predictable romances and steadfast heteronormativity. (This doesn’t mean I didn’t read Jamie and Ronsel queerly, but the film seemed to want to offer at least a superficial shield of prevention there.) And it doesn’t get as angry as it might, nor does it press the buttons of Get Out for a #BlackLivesMatter America. Of course, it doesn’t have to, for this is not an either-or situation. I’m glad I saw both Oscar-nominated films, and they’d make a compelling double feature (Mudbound shown first) as they comment on race, gender, and the limits and promises of Hollywood — and of “Trump” America.