It’s almost difficult to believe that only six years after her feature debut, Pariah, Dee Rees has now been empowered to create something as ambitious as Mudbound. In a different era—say, 20 years ago—it would likely have taken much longer or never really happened at all. Many black female directors emerged before her with promising starts, from Darnell Martin to Julie Dash to Kasi Lemmons to Cheryl Dunye, only to see their careers stall, sometimes indefinitely, due to forces largely outside of their control. It’s only recently that Hollywood has become interested in promoting black female voices like Ava DuVernay’s, let alone those of black lesbian filmmakers such as Rees.
But here we are, in 2017, and you better believe it. Rees has adapted (along with co-writer Virgil Williams) an international best-seller into a convincing World War II–set historical epic, complete with period costumes and expensive-looking combat scenes. (The actual budget was more than $10 million, which is high for an independent movie but very modest next to the average Hollywood drama that uses a real B-25 bomber, as Mudbound does.) It surely didn’t hurt that most of the battles are fought on the home front: The movie follows two Mississippi farming families, one white and one black, and the messy, fateful ways in which their lives intersect. Part family drama, part meditation on the ravages of war, and wholly interested in the repercussions of racial, class, and gender inequality, Mudbound is the work of a filmmaker whose vision is uninhibited. Even when it falters through later narrative twists that become almost too much to bear, it’s a captivating experience—one that we’re lucky exists.
The first family we encounter is the McAllans, a unit perpetually on the brink of exploding under the pressure of unmet expectations, simmering resentment, and unrequited affections. Henry (Jason Clarke), the elder sibling, is a rigid well-to-do engineer in Memphis, Tennessee. Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is the looser, more bohemian younger brother who eventually enlists in the Air Force after Pearl Harbor. Laura (Carey Mulligan) is a 31-year-old “old maid” who isn’t quite in love with Henry but marries him nonetheless out of a need to finally escape her droll home life. When, one night in bed, Henry informs Laura that he’s decided to fulfill his dream of owning a farm and that they and their young children will be moving to rural Mississippi, the comfortable life she briefly enjoyed is ripped out from under her. Making things worse, Henry’s bringing his irascible, hateful father (Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks) to live with them now that his mother has died.
The plot of land they find themselves on is not at all what they expected, but they “make it work” by moving into a dilapidated house right out on the fields. (“Out there with the niggers and the farmhands,” Henry’s father remarks, begrudgingly.) It’s here that they meet the Jackson family, the sharecroppers who will be working for them. Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), have lived and worked on the farm with their children for years, just as Hap’s relatives did before him and they before them. Hap dreams of procuring his own scrap of land, despite the institutions that denied his ancestors—and so many other black farmers of that era—the opportunity, forcing them into lifelong debt. Meanwhile, their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, who delivers the latest in a string of charismatic performances that began with his breakout role as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton) serves overseas as a sergeant in the 761st Tank Battalion, which earned its real-life nickname as the “Black Panthers.” He writes letters home recounting stories about how much better he and his segregated unit are treated in Europe, even by the liberated Germans. Returning home will be a rude awakening.
It’s always a challenge adapting a book told from the perspectives of several characters (as author Hillary Jordan’s novel is) for the screen.
Thankfully, the lilting voice-overs that weave their lives together are inserted sparingly, enough to inject backstory and mood without overexplaining or overwhelming the action on screen. When Florence solemnly takes care of one of Laura and Henry’s children who has suddenly fallen ill in the night, her resigned explanation for why she agreed to help (“If something had happened to that woman’s child, that would’ve been the end of us”) evokes hundreds of years of complicated dynamics between black women and the white children they’ve often been forced to take care of while neglecting the needs of their own.
There’s little nostalgia to be found in this period piece, even among the golden-hued landscape shots of crops and sunsets. Life weighs heavy on everyone, on their dirt-streaked faces and on their work-weary bodies. Most of the actors give fine performances, whether it’s Mulligan’s Laura, suffocating from her dull marriage to a stubborn husband, or Hedlund and Mitchell’s shellshocked veterans, who bond over their traumas. But Blige stands out, fully inhabiting Florence’s heavy, warm presence and her aching for the return of her son.
The gravity of it all makes the rare moments of joy that these characters do experience resonate that much more, as in a scene in which Jamie—who, East of Eden–style, shares an undeniable romantic chemistry with his sister-in-law—shows off a shower he’s built so that Laura can enjoy a little bit of privacy every day. Yet the film’s final act is so filled with dread and reckoning, powered by all-too-convenient plot mechanics, that it stifles any lightness that came before. Perhaps not enough time had passed between my viewing of Kathryn Bigelow’s pornographic depiction of black suffering in Detroit, released in August, and my viewing of Mudbound, but as I witnessed the family’s lives collide in the most tragically predictable of ways (based on an untold number of real-life instances in American history), I couldn’t help but think, Why? Why more black pain? It felt all too familiar.
I still feel that way after the fact (the soundtrack’s use of spirituals lays it on pretty thick), though it’s worth recognizing that, unlike Bigelow, Rees doesn’t wallow as relentlessly in these violent moments, cutting away judiciously. And the story does end on a hopeful note. But even when it doesn’t land perfectly, Mudbound shows off the skill and promise of one of our most fascinating emerging directors. “There’s an assumption that men who do small personal movies can leap to deliver larger things,” Shelby Stone, who produced Rees’ previous film, Bessie, told IndieWire in a profile of the filmmaker. “It’s much harder for women.” In Mudbound, Rees makes it look pretty easy.