At TIFF, I had the pleasure of screening what is sure to be an awards season contender, Mudbound, which is now streaming on Netflix. Mudbound is a dynamically raw and emotional film with exceptional performances from Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, and Mary J. Blige. The film, set in the Mississippi Delta during and immediately after World War Two, begins with the separate stories of the McAllan and Jackson families, we get a sense of how life and circumstances shape who these people are, especially when their lives begin to intertwine.
The McAllan brothers, Jamie and Henry, who we first see burying their father Pappy in a flash forward, are white males in the South who are accustomed to a certain level of privilege, and each has chosen different life paths. Henry (Jason Clarke) is the more traditional brother of the two, whereas Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is more the dreamer. Henry meets Laura (Carey Mulligan), who at the time is more content being a working woman than a wife — while this is more than reasonable and acceptable for any woman who can forge their own path, it isn’t as accepted during this time period. Her family — her mother, in particular — pressures her to court Henry, get married, and have a family. They do, but Henry, who once valued her opinion and looked to her in all areas of his life, decides — without discussion — to uproot their kids and his racist, sexist father to the family farm in rural Mississippi, changing the course of their lives forever. When the initial deal of renting a house falls through, they are forced to live on the farm that Henry had solely planned to work on.
On the other hand, Jamie, the free spirit, gets drafted into the war. His time as a fighter pilot changes him, as most wars do, and when he comes back home, he grapples with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and night terrors that continue to haunt him. He finds a friend in Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), who lives with his family on the farm. Their friendship is deeply rooted in their shared war experiences. But despite this kinship, Jamie struggles with finding a true place on the farm and continues to be seen as less than by his father.
The Jackson family are Black sharecroppers on the McAllan farm who work hard and keep their space and distance. Father Hap (Rob Morgan) and oldest son Ronsel take on most of the work. Ronsel is called to the war and it’s his mother, Florence (Mary J. Blige), who has the hardest time letting him go, knowing that this might be the last time she ever sees him and knowing that even with his service, his life and sacrifices will continue to be undervalued due to the color of his skin. While Ronsel is away, Florence is forced into serving as midwife for the McAllans when their daughters draw ill with an infection. She has to leave her home and risk her health for the well being of their family, as we’ve seen time after time with Black women, at the expense of hers.
During Florence’s time as midwife, she and Laura form an unexpected bond. Laura realizes that she can’t manage on her own and almost demands that Florence work for them on a more regular basis, outside of emergencies. Despite playing the extra money angle, Hap is less than thrilled about the additional time Florence will spend away from home. Laura is deep in her own cycle, falling out of love with Henry, but trying to please him. She also struggles with Pappy and his behaviors, all while cleaning up the messes that her husband creates, simply because he isn’t the strongest farmer, and has too much pride to admit that he needs more help than he lets on.
Meanwhile while overseas, Ronsel’s experience serving in the war is challenging but while he gets a taste of what it was like to be respected as a man of color. He even starts a relationship with a European woman and is living in bliss when the war ends and he returns home. He surprises his parents and his siblings and all is well until he walks to the store and encounters Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Pappy, being his usual privileged and rude self, not only demands that Ronsel apologizes, but that Henry handle him. Ronsel, at the advice of his father, apologizes, as so to not cause any additional trouble, in an attempt to restore harmony, in Hap’s eyes.
As Ronsel and Jamie’s friendship continues to grow, racial tensions and climate rise on the farm. Eventually, Pappy finds out about the friendship and in a scene that is beyond challenging to watch, decides to show Ronsel and Jamie what happens when they essentially cross his boundaries, and those of white America, by forging a friendship with someone of another race. He tortures Ronsel in attempt to humiliate and emasculate him. This breaks Jamie, and causes him to do something that quite frankly was more than warranted and definitely a long time coming.
While the movie ends on an unexpected note for me, the fullness of the story is engaging, raw, emotional and wildly complex. These characters all have something to lose and in a lot of ways are still trying to find themselves. Henry is always looking for Pappy’s approval, and so he does things that are beyond him, just to get it. Jamie is still, in a lot of ways, searching for his place in life, post-war. Laura is trying to adjust to a life that she never intended for herself. She admires Florence for all that she is and all that she can do, but even that is a fine line that cannot be crossed. Hap is just trying to build a stand-alone life for himself and his family, apart from the McAllans. Ronsel is trying to survive, physically, mentally and emotionally. Adjusting to from his wartime life of being highly regarded to his return to America and being virtually unseen. Florence represents the strong black wife and mom, literally adjusting to any and every scenario to survive. Putting the needs of everyone around her before her own.
Dee Rees created a remarkable piece of art that not only showcases a heartbreaking time in our history, but also causes you to question what pieces of this time still remain today. So if you want to watch a period piece that digs deeper into the humanity of deeply flawed and layered characters, all while exploring the impacts segregation has on friendship, the sacrifices of motherhood, and more, watch Mudbound out today on Netflix.