Mudbound Impresses with a Tale of Love, Loss and Jim Crow in the Postwar South

by Gabriel Lerman January 27, 2017
a scene from "Mudbound"

armory films

One week after receiving a standing ovation at its Eccles Theater premiere, Dee Rees' Mudbound was still available for purchase, which is one of the biggest surprises of this year's Sundance Film Festival. Anybody who was at that screening left convinced that it was only a matter of hours until the bleak story of love, friendship and misery would be sold for big money to a U.S. distributor. Slowly but firmly, the story of two families in the Mississippi Delta during the Second World War, one white and one black, grabbed the hearts of everyone present, and by the end of its two hours, the audience felt it had just witnessed a very possible contender for next year’s awards season. In a year defined by the search for racial equality and politics, Mudbound has all the elements to continue the winning streak that the African American community experienced this year: it's an epic story, it shows that hardships not only affected black people and that friendship and love are stronger than hate and racism. It has well developed characters, is historically accurate and some of the work by the cast could seriously help the film’s chances of remaining part of the conversation for months and months. Right after the premiere, word  spread that Mudbound features one of the best performances of Carey Mulligan’s career -  not bad for an actress who was already nominated for a Golden Globe for An Education, and who shined in movies like Shame, The Great Gatsby and Never Let Me Go.

Based on the Hillary Jordan novel of the same name, and adapted by Dee Rees along with Virgil Williams, Mudbound divides its attention between six characters, three belonging to each family, whose destinies that become instantly entwined when Henry Mc Allan (Jason Clarke) buys the land that Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) has been renting for years, without knowing very much about the place. He thinks he is also getting a beautiful house where he plans to live with his wife Laura (Mulligan), his children and his father (Jonathan Banks) but soon after arriving from the big town he discovers he has been duped, and his only option is moving to the same land full of mud he will be renting to the Jacksons.

While we see how the life of Laura and Hap's wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige) develops, finding many times that they share problems, angst, and hopes, we follow the adventures of Henry's brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) in the Second World War, as well as the ones of Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) with the all black 761st Tank Batallion. While in Europe, Ronsel discovers that the people don't pay the same attention to his skin color, and he ends up having an affair with a white German woman, and act which would be a severely sanctioned back in the US. When he returns home, he quickly learns that things there haven't changed. The film deals here with the historically unfair treatment of African American servicemen, returning home after fighting for their country and being again subjected to Jim Crow indignities. Ronsel’s transformed attitude is perceived by Henry's father, the film's villain, as a threat. Things get worse when Ronsel develops a friendship with Jamie, who's also back and lives at his brother's house. The fact that the two men are together just to share a laugh puts the local racists folks on alert and takes the film to a very dramatic showdown.

At the Q&A following the first screening in Sundance, Dee Rees, the forty year-old director who previously came to the festival with Pariah, was exultant with the audience reaction. The Tennessee native is a proven professional, who has also directed Bessie, the TV movie for which Queen Latifah got a Golden Globe nomination, winning 4 Emmys, including one for best TV picture. She explained that the film was shot in only 27 days, an amazing achievement due to its high production values that included tank battles and dogfighting.

See Carey Mulligan Gets Raves for “Mudbound”.

See Dee Rees on "Mudbound".

Sundance Review: Mudbound, feature. Directed by Dee Rees. Wriiten by Virgil Williams, Dee Rees, from the novel by Hilary Jordan. Produced by Carl Effenson. Sally Jo Effenson, Cassian Elwes, Christopher Lemole and Tim Zajaros. With Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige/