All Their Deeds Undone
“If I can go three grandmothers back and find a slave, that means someone else can go three grandmothers back and find a slave owner. When you interrogate your histories, it forces you to rethink who you are and where you are.” — Dee Rees
Mudbound begins with digging. The screen is black, the sound unmistakable. The scene that emerges takes place at night: two brothers are digging a grave for their father. A storm is coming, so Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) are in a hurry. “We ain’t gonna make it,” mutters Jamie. Henry insists that they will, that they have to. “That was my brother Henry,” narrates Jamie, “Absolutely certain whatever he wanted to happen would. Certain his little brother would never betray him.”
You imagine this certainty will be put to a test as Mudbound cuts back in time to show how Pappy (Jonathan Banks) comes to need burying. This story, set during and after World War II, leads to still more digging, as the brothers’ conflicts and betrayals are bound together inextricably. “When I think of the farm,” narrates Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), “I think of mud and crust and knees and hair, marching in boot shaped patches across the floor,” she says as we see her walking in mud, her two small children keeping pace, following the brothers who carry their father’s coffin. “I dream in brown,” she says.
Laura establishes the foundation of that dreaming when she recalls how, as a 31-year-old virgin, she met Henry in 1939. Though she doesn’t quite love him, she says, he embodies escape, and so they marry and move from Tennessee to the Mississippi Delta, where Henry buys farmland. Here they meet Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige), sharecroppers who have worked that land for years. Their dream, also mudbound, is now forever entwined with the white land owners, including the viciously racist Pappy.
All of their stories take a turn following the attack on Pearl Harbor: both Jamie and Hap and Florence’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) find themselves on the front in Europe. The war, Laura notes, “changed everything forever”, but it also changes nothing. Ronsel’s parents still can’t own land, they still face danger from their white neighbors, they still can’t move on. As Ronsel leaves home, Florence turns her back, determined not to watch him go, because, she narrates, “It’s bad luck.” Back in her home, the camera keeps a distance as she sweeps. “I held his heartbeat in my hand,” she says over her broom’s rhythmic swish. “I remember every beat, he was warm and alive. I know every place in him, and all I could do was to not look back.” She looks out her window, the road on which her son disappeared now stretching before her as if on a movie screen, distant, blurred, unfathomable.
A screen, a window, a horizon: all are tied to labor, whether keeping house, digging fields, looking after children. For all that Florence cannot know in this moment, you’re aware, with her narration, that Dee Rees’ film is taking a new direction, with multiple narrators forming an intricate, absorbing range of perspectives. Jamie, Laura, Henry, Florence, Hap, and Ronsel each describe a different experience of the same set of events, as cinematographer Rachel Morrison frames each to show subtle distinctions, with shifts in light and shadow, movement and stasis. Panning left over the congregation gathered in an unfinished structure as Hap preaches, the camera reveals faces weary and resilient, fans in motion and Sunday hats in place. In a next shot, the camera pans right, past laundry hanging on a line to show Hap and other fieldworkers, digging.
“What good is a deed?” asks Hap. “My grandfathers and great uncles, grandmothers and great aunts, father and mother, broke, tilled, thawed, planted, plucked, raised, burned, broke again. Worked this land all their life, this land that would never be theirs.” He stands against the sunset, his back to the camera. “They worked until they sweated,” he says, “They sweated till they bled, they bled till they died. Died with the dirt of this same 200 acres under their fingernails, died clawing at the hard, brown back that would never be theirs. All their deeds undone. Yet this man, this law, this place, say you need a deed.”
With all its digging, Mudbound reveals repetition, in language and experience, in loss and hope. It also reveals differences, as Laura and Florence search for sustenance and futures, as Jamie and Ronsel pursue options, horizons beyond their home’s grim brown limits. Ronsel finds a world where racism is less pronounced and a white German girlfriend (Samantha Hoefer) who loves him. Jamie finds trauma, his copilot shot dead in the cockpit beside him. When they return home and develop a friendship, both are at risk, targeted by Klansmen and law officers. If the plot of Mudbound is familiar, its very repetition is devastating, especially in this moment in US history, when Trump and white supremacists dig up the past — legacies of racism, abuse, and fear — and make them horrifyingly incessant, inescapable.
“Violence is part and parcel of country life,” observes Laura, offering another list and more repetitions while Hap must shoot an injured horse on Henry’s land. Florence looks away, the camera fixed on her face. “You’re forever being assailed by dead things,” Laura narrates over a series of shots showing illustrative bodies. “Dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find ’em in the yard, you smell ’em rotting under the house. And then there are the creatures you kill for food. Chickens, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels. Pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat, start again, kill.”
In Mudbound, repetition is poetic even as it’s destructive, racism is deeply entrenched even when it’s visible. The war is transformative and also, not. The families need one another but also keep their distance, surviving by their separation. Most painfully, the history it excavates remains, still roiling and still vivid, ever present.