With Mudbound as her second directorial feature film after Pariah, Dee Rees is well on her way to becoming one of the most visionary filmmakers of the 21st century.
Dee Rees turned Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel of the same name into a heartfelt, pointed story about racism, poverty, and post-war trauma. Hap Jackson, played by Rob Morgan, and his wife Florence, plaid by Mary J. Blige, seek out a living on the McAllen farm with their five children, dreaming of one day to make enough money to buy their own piece of land.
The film begins at the end with the burial of Jamie McAllen and Henry McAllen’s father. After digging the grave, they come upon the grave of an enslaved person. Henry remarks that they can not bury their father in a slave’s grave because there is “nothing he’d hate more”.
This remark frames our understanding of both Henry and his father from the beginning. Henry had taken his city wife to the farm of his childhood. His wife Laura, played by Carey Mulligan, absolutely hates every minute of it, but weathers it nonetheless.
The film quickly becomes an exploration of violence and death: the violence of men against men, the violence of white men against black men, and the violence of men against women. “Violence is a part and parcel of country life,” Laura narrates at one point.
There is much discussion about violence, but very little reflection about death. Death is already upon them. The characters are choking to death under a system of poverty, sexism, and racism. It limits and strangles their every action.
They may still be living but many are already dead. While the core of the film is essentially about grotesque expression of white supremacist violence, there is also an element of criticism against classism and sexism.
The sexism is best expressed with the relationship between Hap Jackson and Henry McAllen and their respective wives. Henry is an absent-minded fool at best and completely negligent toward his wife and children at worst.
His primary concern is the dreams and goals of Henry McAllen. Henry does not consider that his wife has her own dreams and goals. The McAllens have the capital to own a farm. In fact, Henry had enough capital to sell his home in the city and move his entire family to the country without much of discussion or debate with his wife.
The McAllens are essentially poor farmers, but they are wealthy compared with the black families in the community — they are essentially capitalists. They have the land, they have the tractors, and most importantly, they have the law behind them. Their bourgeois classification is highlighted even more with the disdain Laura McAllen has for country life.
It could be argued that her disdain is for how hard it is, but with the inclusion of lines about her not moving into the farm house without her piano, as well as her love of classical literature such as Shakespeare, there are clearly signals of her interpretation of country life as uncivilized. To her, rural life has no time for art, nor books, nor cleanliness.
McAllen’s relationship with his wife is juxtaposed with Jackson’s relationship with Florence. Jackson quotes the Bible about how the husband should rule over the wife, but also never does anything without first getting approval from her.
When Henry requests him to do something, Hap Jackson looks to Florence for a nod, then he agrees. Jackson never stops Florence from doing anything either. On top of this, their dreams are the same: they both want to save enough so they can buy their own piece of land. In this, Mudbound is as much about racism as it is about men’s power over women.
The film displays subtle and repeated incidents of the neglect, disregard, and the disrespect men have for women. Another way to read this, especially from Laura McAllen’s perspective, is that the film explores the exploitation of women by men in a society that renders them powerless. Women, like Laura McAllen, are restricted to employ power in simple ways such as domestic life — the cooking, the children, the washing, and so on.
Mudbound utilises vivid colors, and is clearly lit for black skin — an often under-appreciated quality in cinema. Rachel Morrison, who was also the cinematographer for Fruitvale Station, became the first woman to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Cinematographer for her work on Mudbound. She deserves it, and much more to be honest.
In a time of overt white supremacy, Mudbound shows who has the power to end it. It is the white character, Jamie, who engages in the most significant outreach. In a society in which the white character has all the social, political, and economic power, it is incumbent on these individuals to act first and act decisively.
Jamie reaches out to Ronsel Jackson. He offers him a ride home in his truck, and asks him to sit upfront with him as an equal. He offers him a drink from his own flasks, as well as a cigarette, but most of all he offers him companionship. They are the only two in the community who have gone to war. They have come back alive but broken. And through their PTSD, they form a brotherly bond.
The war changed them both. Ronsel learned not to back down from a fight. Whilst in Europe, he received moderate respect as a liberator, and in the process he learned not to fear white people.
Jamie was likely a black sheep in his family anyway, being educated and erudite. But it’s likely he was shocked out of his previous understanding about America through his war experience as well.
Mudbound is a post-racial film for a post-post-racial world. The end result is not liberation or segregation, it does not ignore or end racism, the end result is life. Life needs to be lived. To live, you must fight, especially against racism. To do nothing, to stand still, is death even for the living.
Mudbound is currently streaming on Netflix.