Netflix’s latest original film, “Mudbound,” is an ambitious, layered exploration of race in America. Although set in the 1940s, the film feels so modern it almost begs to be interpreted as a metaphor for today.
Director Dee Rees’ (“Pariah,” “Bessie”) adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s book of the same name, “Mudbound” tells the story of two families — the McAllans, a white family, and the Jacksons, a black family — whose lives are intertwined on a rural Mississippi farm. Two of these family members, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), return home from serving in World War II to their respective families who share the same land.
Jamie’s brother, Henry (Jason Clarke), and his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), run the family farm, and Ronsel’s father, Hap (Rob Morgan), and mother, Florence (Mary J. Blige), work as sharecroppers on the same property. A delicate peace is disturbed when Henry and Jamie’s racist father, Pappy (Johnathan Banks), notices Jamie and Ronsel developing a friendship. What follows is a tragic, nuanced story of race, destiny, poverty and love.
From a technical perspective, “Mudbound” is a gorgeously shot and powerfully acted piece of filmmaking. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s visuals are grimy and visceral, perfectly reflecting the desperation of the film’s characters. The script, written by Rees and Virgil Williams, is impressive in scope, and Rees’ direction is tight despite minor pacing issues early in the film. While “Mudbound” clearly has a message, it’s understated because of Rees’ directorial decisions. Her camera has no agenda except to show the lives of the film’s characters, and she lets the script do much of the heavy thematic lifting. She simply transcribes its events on screen for her audience to interpret. Like a good author, Rees’ focus is on her characters and their plights and struggles — not beating her audience over the head with an overstated, melodramatic “message movie.”
Novelistic in its pacing and character development, “Mudbound” is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” in its focus on the rural working class and the choices that affect people’s lives. The film takes its time to introduce its characters and allows viewers to see through each of their viewpoints — which breeds compassion. Poverty binds the families together — despite the McAllans being slightly better off than the Jacksons — and is at the heart of what makes “Mudbound” resonate long after the film’s last image fades.
One shot near the end of the film can summarize its message. Jamie and Ronsel are knelt facing one another in a barn at night, their knees sunken into the thick mud beneath them. They stare into each other’s eyes, faces caked with sweat and grime. The shot lasts for about five seconds, and yet the entire story is retold in that moment. Both men are bound by their circumstances, and they can only choose whether or not to love and aid each other.
“Mudbound” is a sprawling epic that tackles race in America today by looking through the lens of the past. In a time so focused on people’s differences, the film shows audiences what people have had in common for centuries — not the superficial sharing of interests, but rather the deeply rooted fight to provide one’s children with a better life and scrap one’s way out of the mud.
“Mudbound” will open in theaters nationwide and will be available to stream on Netflix Nov. 17.