Dee Rees’ makes her breakout as a director with a biracial epic Mudbound in the heart of Mississippi.
After Driving Miss Daisy rolled into our zeitgeist in 1989, winning four Oscars and viewership across the American spectrum, a format was perfected to capture civil rights narratives in the mainstream. Like the deference history gives to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over Malcolm X and Freddie Hampton, cinema has best sold its reenactments of black struggle through overtones of spirituality, passionate emotion, and forgiveness as opposed to anger. There are legitimate film techniques that translate these values – most notably the use of voiceover and persistent musical score – which now define a movement of commercialized black narratives such as Selma (2014), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), and The Help (2011).
Independent black film predated this movement, like Charles Burnett’s outstanding early work Killer of Sheep (1978), but commercially minded African-American narratives were largely limited to demographic-based Blaxploitation films until Driving Miss Daisy changed the game, after which, black filmmakers responded to the sentimentality in much the same way that Malcolm X and the Black Panther party responded to MLK. Independent black cinema, entering a new era with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) has become a movement in its own right, founded on the exposure of persistent inequality and the showcasing of Afrocentric culture and pride.
We’re at an interesting point in this period – Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight (2016) won Best Picture at Oscar’s last year, a major event considering how much the film challenges traditional (read: heteronormative) black narratives and, perhaps more significantly, the traditional techniques of acclaimed black cinema. There were no sad violins in Moonlight, no peace offering of tenderness set in black dialect; its homoerotic storyline made even black audiences uncomfortable, and yet it was universally lauded. I’m very curious to see what happens next.
Dee Rees’ new film Mudbound, which will emerge on Netflix come November, is one to watch, not only because it continues this rich dialogue of black filmmaking, but because it’s really well done. On its surface, everything about Mudbound proves it to be next in the lineage of commercialized, all-access black narratives from the Driving Miss Daisy camp. The tone, especially at the start, is set to a persistent backdrop of an elegiac yet hopeful violin. The star-studded cast is distinguished in their ability to look longingly toward the camera, and each one gets their moment for emotional voiceover. But Rees’ style shines through the format, and her story stands out most notably in it’s important and original narrative.
Mudbound’s narrative is sculpted to keep the audience impartial toward the two families. That’s a hard task for America at any point in our history, but Rees truly champions the mission.
With almost equal clarity, the film follows two adjacent families, one white and one black, on a sharecropping farm in Mississippi. The McAllans (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan) rent their land to the Jacksons (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) and the two struggle to coexist in an uneasy symbiosis, eventually realizing their reliance on one another is equal – despite the inequality. Nearly all of the plot takes place as the flashback; the film opens with the McAllan brothers, Henry (Clarke) and Jamie (Garrett Hedland) trying to bury their Pappy (Jonathan Banks) who we later learn is a cold-blooded racist, on top of an old slave tomb. Struggling as the sky opens up to rain, they see the Jackson family passing by and ask for help. We cut off at the height of tension to give background, and the story restarts with Henry meeting his wife.
The narrative is often disrupted like this, and frequently at peak emotion, for context – a somewhat frustrating format that effectively serves to keep the audience impartial toward the two families. That’s a hard task for Americans at any point in our history, but Rees truly champions the mission. The white characters in Mudbound struggle weakly within the social mores of their era, and forced to pay deference to a patriarch too old to change his bigoted ways. Their attempts to reconcile and humanize their neighbors become an individual and perpetual challenge when their proximity cuts in, and it doesn’t always work out. When Hap Jackson (Morgan) breaks his leg at work, Henry tells him he won’t finish planting in time unless he rents one of the McAllan’s mules. Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) tries to persuade him to lend them borrow the beast of burden, and when she can’t, she takes money from the safe (Henry’s combination is the date of the Confederate’s victory in Richmond) and pays for Hap’s doctor.
Simply observing race relations in the 1940’s at a personal level – however, fictionalized – makes for an affecting narrative. But Mudbound really shines in its exposure of these relationships during World War II. Rees’ film isn’t really a war epic, but both families send members off to battle. Henry’s brother Jamie goes to the Air Force and returns in the throes of post-traumatic stress. But it’s Hap’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) who really steals the spotlight of this ensemble film, as he finds his greatest struggle not on the front line of Patton’s offensive, but back at home, where a decorated hero gets treated like a second-class citizen. While Jamie encounters little besides carnage in WWII, Ronsel meets a level of decency and respect on the battlefield that he never knew at peacetime, and even has a fling with a Belgian girl. His second day home, Pappy McAllan blocks his way out of a dry goods store, and forces him to take the back way for fear of lynching. The revelatory decency blacks found in midcentury Europe, a subject of one of James Baldwin’s best essays, “Equal in Paris,” hasn’t yet had its moment in cinema, and Rees does a great service by highlighting it above the rest of her story.
Mudbound shines in its exposure of the black experience at home and abroad during World War II.
Mitchell is outstanding as an American hero alienated in his homeland. Mary J. Blige’s powerful portrayal as Florence Jackson, a mother balancing her obligations to family, is a breath of fresh air for the industry. Mainstream black cinema has been focusing so much attention on black masculinity lately that it caused some narratives, like Nate Parker’s fraught Birth of a Nation (2016) to come off as stunted. Carey Mulligan plays at her expected caliber as Laura McAllan, but her performance is problematized by her character’s insipid self-erasure. She states early in the film her passion for domestic life: “I love yielding to Henry, and waiting for him to come home to me.” Later, “I didn’t always enjoy Henry’s lovemaking, but it made me feel like a true wife. I never thought to refuse him.” It’s true that Laura’s contentions with her husband, especially in regards to their sharecroppers’ treatment, start to surface as the film goes on, and Mulligan would have a hard time staying in any man’s shadow, but these lines are, if not diminishing, bad character development – do we wish to believe what she says?
For me, the fascinating part of Mudbound is its director. Dee Rees’ is a new voice and promises to be a lasting one. This is her second feature, clearly a plum job from higher powers in production, but Mudbound’s commercialized, sympathetic format is not that of its creator. Rees’ first film, Pariah (2011) is a remarkable independent feature surprisingly preemptive to Moonlight – it’s a story of an adolescent girl coming to terms with her sexuality and gender identity in the face of a rigid home life, and the transgressions Rees showcases there have the tenuousness of a Spike Lee joint – demanding attention without debasing for appeal.
It was Pariah that got Rees the respect to make a blockbuster like Mudbound, but the cost of working with superstars like Mary J. Blige means a certain loss of voice. And the debate over how much voice is allowed or accepted of black people in cinema has been continuing for decades now. We’re lucky to have Rees contributing to it, in making an all-access feature that also happens to say something, but time will tell if she will speak out in her proud, independent style or assimilate into the industry.
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