First of all watching Mary J. Blige on the big screen in an epic film like this, is a little bit emotional, like watching your best homegurl living out the dreams you know she’s been harbouring since you met in primary school.
It’s also a bit surreal to see someone you’ve grown up with; used to them vocally soundtracking the highs and lows of your life, delivering such a soulful character as Blige serves us Florence Jackson. Although Florence has more scenes in silence than actually speaking, she evokes the absolute woman we think the Queen of Hip Hop Soul would be in the reality of Mudbound.
So, what is this world? Set in 1940s America, Mudbound tells the story of two families. One white – the McAllans, Henry McAllan, his wife Laura McAllan and their two daughters; Henry’s younger brother Jamie McAllan and their father Pappy McAllan. The other family, the African American Jacksons, Hap Jackson, his wife Florence Jackson, their children including Ronsel Jackson.
The synopsis reads – Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm, a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not – charming and handsome, but he is haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, now battles the prejudice in the Jim Crow South.
Simplified as synopses go, the heart of this story is so much more. Two men trying in vain to make something of the legacy they feel they need to prove to their fathers. In Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) we see your typical white American man from the Deep South. Insecure and brow beaten by his ruthless Pappy (Jonathan Banks) Henry is determined to make something out of an ill-thought out dream. Moving his family to a rundown farm, Henry’s pride and privilege as a white man in Jim Crow America is all he has, to the detriment of the people close to him. Whereas Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) is the son of slaves, with a family he’s determined to move on up and out from under the weight of the ghosts of their enslaved ancestors. A man who loves his family, and wants more than anything for them to have legal claim to the land that his people died to maintain. Being a sharecropper is not what Hap wants to be his legacy.
Upon moving to the farm in Mississippi, Henry becomes the boss of Hap, who sharecrops on recently purchased land. The dreams of a hopeful black man now in the hands of a frustrated white man.
With the wives in Mudbound, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), up until she met Henry, was considered an Old Maid (‘still a virgin at 31’). When she’s introduced to Henry, although he’s not quite her dream man, he provides an out from her well to do, yet oppressive home. But Laura is swiftly forced to manage her naive expectations as she becomes an unintentional farmer’s wife, left to wonder where it all went wrong, and how. In contrast, Florence Jackson (Blige) is every bit the typical African American matriarch. Ruling her sparse home, with love, hope and a kind sternness. Her biggest task, is managing her husband’s frustrations in wanting to be recognised as a man, and inspiring hope in her children during a time when black children were absolutely not allowed or expected to dream.
In Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) we have the cheeky good looking younger brother of Henry. Carefree until he goes off to war. In Ronsel Jackson, we have the favourite oldest son, who eagerly signs up to war, keen to represent his country and escape the segregated world he lives in.
What writer/director Dee Rees does so well with Mudbound is entwine two narratives of two families living side by side under the weight of racism and segregation. She doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but introduces you to this world with a refined subtlety. What she captures are the similarity in problems both families experience, albeit in different ways. The dependency humans have on each other as neighbours superceding the laws of then (and today). Exposing why those laws of white ruling black so redundant, and frustrating. For example, watching Henry make so many mistakes which affect himself and family, in comparison to Hap who tries his hardest to accommodate his family’s happiness alongside his aspirations, yet when Henry says jump, Hap has no choice but to listen to a man whom he outshines in every aspect. There’s also a scene when, Laura needs Florence’s help, then assumes that Florence would like nothing more than to work for her (evoking memories of that scene in Color Purple when Sofia is told to work for the mayor’s wife… and what happens when she utters the beautiful yet life sentencing words ‘helllll naw!’).
The cast are all brilliant in their roles. Ultimately it’s Mary J. Blige under the biggest scrutiny, and she doesn’t disappoint.
If I were to say anything bad about Mudbound, it would be due to my sensitivities as a black woman angry at the state of the world today, it’s the ever so slight, white saviour positioning of Jamie and Laura McAllan… but I’m absolutely open to the fact that I’m angry at racism. I’m angry at the default privilege of the characters in the film. I’m affected by the history books which have shown too many horror stories of what white, segregated America was like for me to trust that there were nice guys like Jamie and Laura around. Also Pappy McAllan is so harshly racist, it’s almost, and it happens quite often especially in recent on screen depictions of the slavery era that all the worst racism is reserved for the older generation who could be excused as ‘not knowing any better; it’s the times they grew up’ giving them an out.
But in her defence Rees brings it back with Henry’s attitude towards the Jacksons in various stages. No he’s not outright calling them ‘Nigger’ but he acts as if they belong to him and that’s enough.. There’s also a harrowing scene where we meet the Ku Klux Klan, that almost doesn’t fit in the whole film because it seems so extreme in this slow burner. Almost, making the KKK look almost like a joke. But again we quickly get pulled back to reality in the aftermath. The last critique is that it’s not always easy to follow the southern drawl of the actors when they are narrating their characters’ thoughts, enunciation isn’t always clear so I missed some of their motivations. Again, it is mostly forgivable because the narration is so complimentary to the style of the film and generally works well.
Mudbound premiered as part of the BFI London Film Festival and will come to Netflix November 17th 2017. It will also go on general cinema release in specific cinemas on the same date.