“They say it’s bad luck to watch somebody leave”
People too often speak about America’s scars as though the damage was done, skin healed over, and remnants already mostly faded away. But this isn’t true. Ask any member of a group that has been marginalized from the moment Europeans landed on the Atlantic shore until now—namely anyone who isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Christian—and hear about the myriad ways in which their country has still yet to treat them like they belong. Too many wax on about giving Native Americans land, abolishing slavery, and allowing women the right to vote as though they provided a gift rather than compensation for centuries of oppressive superiority. Too many treat a step in the right direction as the solution. They supply an appearance of equality rather than equality itself.
Our nation is again embroiled in such a moment of blindness, where marginalized swathes of the population that simply desire to be seen have made those aforementioned white Anglo-Saxon Christians fear losing the unearned advantage they’re quick to say doesn’t exist. Suddenly there’s a contingent of people who refuse to adapt to the twenty-first century that cry as though they’re being persecuted. They lament that affirmative action and illegal aliens are taking their “God-given” jobs away despite their sense of entitlement proving they aren’t worthy of those jobs (or worse, feel they are above them). They talk about wars on whites, Christmas, and coalminers, spinning their racism into buzzwords lapped up by other racists now emboldened by familiar rhetoric. They need to be constantly reminded of the truth.
And that’s where art like Dee Rees‘ Mudbound fits in—art with the ability to prove how bad it was in this country and how bad it remains. Adapted from Hillary Jordan‘s novel alongside Virgil Williams, Rees’ film takes a look at the state of America’s south during and after World War II. It shows how slavery wasn’t replaced with freedom, but indentured servitude instead. It shows how black men fought on the frontlines of a war that secured justice and democracy for the entire free world and yet they only received more scorn and hate for their trouble. We’re shown that same fear on today’s news, small men forsaking morals to retain control. To allow black men to be hailed as heroes means admitting they’re also human.
The events onscreen may span the 1940s yet only the period wardrobe separates it from today. There are still vile men with guns shooting unarmed “others” with impunity. There are still vile men who justify horrendous crimes with lines like “He was warned.” There are still sympathizers willing to take the beating that the real victims are receiving without just cause. And of course there are still those being treated as animals, less than, and expendable. We can still see how those like us in Europe have become the true providers of equality while we continue to segregate by whatever means the law allows. And when we should rally around the innocents with unity, vociferous vultures fan the flames to divide our ranks further. Citizen still isn’t “American.”
Rees portrays every single one in an opening scene seething with implicit tension. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) is old guard, a man who likes rules because he’s lucky enough to have the skin color of their enforcers. His younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is enlightened, a man who won’t kowtow to a way of thinking that he’s seen proven wrong with his own eyes. Their father (Jonathan Banks‘ Pappy)—the body they’re trying to bury before a storm comes—is as vile as can be, a man who offers the world nothing but a sanctimonious air of vigilante judge and jury. And the man Henry flags down to help (Rob Morgan‘s Hap Jackson) is the one who cannot trust the lot of them but must to simply survive.
The depth of insincerity and rage experienced with but a look between Henry and Hap respectively is enough to inch your butt to seat’s edge. We learn so much about the kinds of people these characters are in these first five minutes that Rees cutting to the title card right before a powder keg of emotion appears to blow is absolute perfection. She provides the truth of this adversarial divide between white and black with but a few lines and telling expressions, Hap and his family’s silence saying more in response than any words could. So the decision to go back and witness how they came to be neighbors and how that thick air of apprehension formed becomes crucial to understanding this unforgiving time so like our own.
Without a true lead role amongst them, multiple voiceover narrations from an unmarked present-day arrive to put us inside each of their minds and parse together a complete tale from their disparate viewpoints. This means meeting Laura (Carey Mulligan), Henry’s soon-to-be wife; Florence (Mary J. Blige), the Jackson matriarch; and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the Jacksons’ eldest son shipping off to Germany as a tank sergeant in quick succession. This trio interweaves with Henry, Hap, and Jamie so that we hear the internal monologues of husbands (as alike in mettle and pride as they are different in social standing), wives (able to see beyond “rules” that separate when charity and alliance prove beneficial to everyone), and soldiers (Jamie joins Ronsel in Europe, a bomber pilot to his ground gun).
What happens isn’t about Henry with an angel (Laura) and devil (Pappy) on each shoulder. It’s not about whether he can redeem himself in the light of a worldview that had been ingrained within him. He’s merely the catalyst, the one who uproots his family to a life of farming wherein the Jacksons become his sharecropping “employees.” As Laura often says, the horrors they endure happen when he’s away almost like clockwork—his tough hand as much a provocation to Hap and company as it is a necessary, calming influence for his father. Instead the film shows how these people react to the times, how they rise to the occasion (or don’t). It’s about Laura putting Henry in his place and Florence proving she doesn’t need Hap’s protection.
It’s about Ronsel becoming emboldened by the taste of what life could be rather than what it was and is upon returning. It’s Jamie knowing who had his back: how he wasn’t able to see the faces of those he killed but couldn’t forget the faces of those who saved him. We’re watching America on the precipice of a difficult civil rights movement, the cusp of turning a corner with an undeniable truth. And yet here we are still living in a world that needs Black Lives Matter and citizen opposition to Muslim bans. Here we are more than half a century removed from a time where whites were forced to see the atrocities of their actions despite relying on their victims’ patriotism and the cycle remains unbroken.
And Rees depicts it with artistry and scale. She lets her audience read between lines even as she escalates events beyond the threshold of human decency to remind who the animals really are. The multiple narrative threads and voiceovers recall the greatest work of Terrence Malick as Mudbound becomes a Days of Heaven by way of The Tree of Life. It’s an American epic about two families in just a decade’s time and yet it tells the story of a nation divided by hate and suffering. Just as she allows us to believe in optimism and hope, reality supplies a fiery vengeance pushing characters to the brink of patience. At a certain point we must choose a side. Family is more than blood alone. It has to be.
[1-3] Photo by Steve Dietl