Distributed by: Netflix
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
I had heard so much about the film, Mudbound, critical acclaim for its acting and its original song by Mary J. Blige, who also starred in the film. I wondered what all the hype was about. I had already heard the song, Mighty River, and agreed with critics that this was one Oscar-worthy song, but was the movie any good? I was about to find out.
Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound takes place in the 1940s and involves two families, one white and one black, working on a farm in Marietta, Mississippi, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. As the film opens, two brothers, Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jaime (Garrett Hedlund), struggle to dig a grave and then have difficulties with getting the coffin containing their recently deceased father in the grave. Much to Henry’s wife and brother’s chagrin, Henry flags down the Jackson family for help.
That’s when the film flashes back to before America’s involvement in World War II. Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is tired of her life at home and sees in Henry, an opportunity to escape the boredom. He presents himself as an intelligent businessman, while his brother, Jaime is the lady’s man who makes his living acting in plays and the like. Though he is not exactly a romantic, Henry does love Laura and he provides a sense of stability. The two get married and live rather blissfully for a time. Some time after their second child is born, Henry mentions that he has bought a farm in the Mississippi Delta and moves his family, including his racist father (Jonathan Banks) there.
Meanwhile, already living on the farm are the Jackson Family. Every single member of the Jackson family works the farm as sharecroppers. It is father Hap Jackson’s (Rob Morgan) dream to earn enough money to purchase land of his own and his whole family supports that dream. When World War II breaks out, their oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in the Army and becomes a Sergeant in the tank brigade. As luck would have it, one of the McAllan’s also goes to war – Jaime becomes a bomber pilot.
Times are hard at the farm for both families. In addition to losing their oldest son to the war effort, they lose their mule and then, the unthinkable happens – Hap breaks his leg. This is a cost to both families as Henry loses one of his most productive workers and Hap loses the money he needs for his getaway plan. Luckily, his wife (Mary J. Blige) is still bringing in some money working for Laura helping out with the kids and the housework.
When the war ends and the men come back to their families, it is believed that things will get better as there will be more hands to help with the farm. But Ronsel and Jaime are changed men. Ronsel has grown used to being treated as an equal overseas. Jaime has severe PTSD. The two find that their war experience has led them to become disillusioned with the world they currently live in and that leads to a friendship none can understand, most importantly, Jaime’s racist father and his hooded friends. What happens next will change the lives of everyone on that farm, regardless of color.
After seeing this film, I can honestly say Mudbound was robbed at the Oscars. Not only should this film have won for original song (I reviewed the soundtrack of Coco and, while I liked the song, Remember Me, I thought Mary J. Blige’s Mighty River was a much more poignant song and should have won. Perhaps the powers that be at the Oscars weren’t ready to praise a song that spoke about race relations at this time.), it should have received more award nominations than it did. Particularly surprising is the lack of a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of Ronsel. I support their nomination of Mary J. Blige in Best Supporting Actress, but Jason Mitchell’s acting was far superior and deserved notice. That this film didn’t win any awards at the Oscars is equally surprising.
The fact of the matter is, this film accurately portrays the way things were in the south after the war. Black soldiers, who had gotten used to being treated as equals in Europe, were now returning to the South and finding that nothing had changed. They had fought for a country who still treated them as if they were second class citizens, or even worse – subhuman. This was a bitter pill to swallow for those who had put their lives on the line like Ronsel. Men like Jaime whose life had been saved by a black pilot, could see Ronsel as his equal still and his friendship helped to curb his PTSD. But the way that friendship had to remain hidden was a bourdon to both parties and in the end, it would cause them great pain.
Mudbound speaks to the plight of the black man before and after the war. Sure, these men had been declared free by President Lincoln, but they were never really free. They had no money, no land. Hap had to work his family to the bone to try and save money to buy his own farm. When things went wrong, like when the mule died, Hap had to work that much longer to pay off a mule to replace it. It always seemed the sharecropper was entering further and further into debt, never getting a chance to rise above and be his own man…the institution of the Deep South made certain that would never happen. It wasn’t until after the war that this institution started to break down, but it wouldn’t be until the great Civil Rights Movement that things like segregation would be eradicated…and yet, look around you and I’m sure you can find signs of that lingering prejudice against people of color still floating nearby.
The movie also showed the great strength of the women in this country during the war, despite their lack of rights. Women were expected to work hard and do whatever they could to keep their families afloat, but didn’t really have much say when it came to the household. Witness Henry’s decision to uproot his family and move to a farm. It was mentioned to his wife in an offhand way – this was just something he was going to do and Laura had no say in the matter. The only concession he was willing to make was to have his father sleep in the shack, separate from the main house. Other than that, Laura would just have to live with his decision, period. Anything she did was subject to his approval and though affection was shown, very little was done to make her life easier on the farm. That is why, when Jaime shows her some courtesy it goes a very long way.
The drama in this film captivates you and crushes your heart. I loved Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of Ronsel and his acting alone is reason enough to see Mudbound. The storyline is excellent and a rather accurate portrayal of the South in the time period before, during and after WWII. The various messages in the film are poignant. The score was terrific and Mary J. Blige’s Mighty River was inspiring. Mudbound is one of those great films that so “grabbed” me I find myself recommending it to everyone I know. Check it out – if you are a fan of a well-thought out, well-executed dramatic film, Mudbound is the film to see.