Mudbound is easy to admire but tough to watch at times. It tells a truthful tale from America’s not-so-distant past, contrasting the lives of two families—one black, one white—struggling to eke out an existence as sharecroppers in Mississippi during the 1940s. No one has it easy in this hardscrabble life. In adapting Hillary Jordan’s best-selling novel, director Dee Rees has tried to avoid the obvious but can’t sidestep the inevitable. Her film takes place at a time of segregation, injustice, and blind hatred. It is also a period of coexistence, but that uneasy détente hangs by a thread.
The versatile Jason Clarke plays the head of the white family, a stubborn man who’s not very bright but still has what Rees calls the “currency” of his race. When she marries Clarke, Carey Mulligan’s character accepts the sacrifices she is duty-bound to make, throwing away her education in order to bear children and work a woebegone farm. She clings to her moral code as best she can and refuses to give up her piano when the family moves to a cramped new house; for her, it symbolizes the last vestige of a civilized life.
Mudbound is as much about the role of women in this hidebound society as it is about racial matters. Singer Mary J. Blige gives a quietly powerful performance as the matriarch of the black sharecropping family. She, too, has a code of behavior and raises her children to hold their heads up high. Her husband (Rob Morgan) is a well-meaning man who feels emasculated by his inability to provide for his family as he would like.
Change comes about when America enters World War II. The young men of both races see active duty: Garrett Hedlund in a fighter plane, Jason Mitchell in a tank. They both witness death close-up and naturally it alters their worldview…but Mitchell experiences something new during his time in Europe. Racism doesn’t exist there. To the Europeans he is simply an American soldier.
When they return from combat, Hedlund and Mitchell strike up a friendship based on common experiences, but even this is fraught with danger. They may have changed but Mississippi hasn’t…especially Hedlund’s hateful grandfather Pappy, played with frightening conviction by Jonathan Banks (whom most people know from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul).
The highest compliment I can pay Rees is that her movie feels truthful. That’s why I responded to strongly to her debut feature, Pariah, in 2011. The emotions may be heightened for the sake of drama but that doesn’t mean they don’t represent the reality of the South at this time. Rees’s collaborators help her paint a vivid portrait of a time and place and her actors make us care about their characters. Mudbound is not a feel-good movie but it reminds us what life was like for ordinary people not so many years ago.