NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund (IMDB)

Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.


Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige
Rated: R
Studio: Netflix
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-10-13

It's one thing for Netflix to be the distributor for high-profile documentaries. Sure, there are theaters that would have preferred it if things like the upcoming Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold weren't going to be available for streaming. But that's a drop in the bucket compared to the theaters that might have been more inclined to show bigger-budget narrative movies like Okja or War Machine if Netflix hadn't been streaming them at the same time. After all, Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt. But so far, Netflix has still not been able to break into the top ranks of mainstream distributors, perhaps due in part to the fact that the movies it has been releasing were not exactly the best work possible from those directors. Mudbound, viewed at the 2017 New York Film Festival, has a chance of changing that perception.

A surprisingly assured big-canvas effort from director Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie), Mudbound is adapted from Hillary Jordan's 2008 novel about two families, one white and one black, who find themselves unwillingly bound by land, happenstance, poverty, and the persistence of persecution in the Jim Crow South. The Jacksons are a family of black sharecroppers who have to adjust to their new white landowners, an unsure bunch known as the McAllans whose various missteps (intentional and accidental) lead to bloody tragedy.

Although we have seen a growing number of movies dealing forthrightly with American racism in recent years, most of them have been nonfiction, and those that weren't have tended to focus on individual outrages or clashes. Fictional movies from The Help to Free State of Jones have had racism as a narrative focal point, but nearly always as a problem to be overcome. We haven't seen for some time a story like this that presents Old South racism as an endemic condition, as ever-present as the mud which cloaks so much of the story and as persistent.

As two families working the land in the Delta, the Jacksons and McAllans have their similarities. But the movie doesn't insult its historical pedigree by trying to draw too many parallels. The Jacksons have problems, but they're almost entirely born out of poverty. The father, Hap (Rob Morgan, whose solemn presence anchors much of the movie), and mother, Flo (Mary J. Blige, similarly and powerfully reticent) want only to keep their four children safe and save up enough money to get their own place. Their shack is tiny, the walls of their church still nonexistent. Then, when the McAllans show up, the Jacksons' lives become just that much more difficult.

Henry (Jason Clarke) is one of those quiet, middle-of-the-road men who cause more trouble than they know by remaining blissfully unaware of the damage their solitary decisions create. Having informed his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) that they're moving from the city to the Delta to start farming without asking her, Henry promptly gets swindled out of a house and has to house Laura, his ever-critical father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), and children in a tumbledown shack surrounded by a field of mud. Every dollar Henry can make out of the Jacksons' work on his land, the more he can prove himself a success. While Henry doesn't appear to be an overt racist, he does assume a superior edge with the Jacksons that they are used to, but still, it leaves them knotted up with tension every time he darkens their doorstep. Henry also might not outright mimic the mouth-foaming Klan behavior of Pappy and his buddies, but he certainly won't risk anything by trying to put a stop to it.

Behind that fraught dynamic, the movie tangles in several additional storylines, which each have the potential to blow the families' fragile peace to hell. At the same time that the Jackson's oldest, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) has gone off to fight in World War II as a tank commander with General Patton, Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is piloting B-25s over Germany. Over there, Ronsel discovers an earned pride, not to mention an ease around white Europeans, that won't fly too well back in the Delta. When he and Jamie return, both dealing with the scars of the slaughter they narrowly survived, they strike up a friendship guaranteed to cause waves. Underlying all of this is the rippling sexual tension between Laura and Jamie, whose sardonic wit and romantic élan stand in stark contrast to Henry's headstrong dullness. All this points toward a violent eruption hinted at in the sodden gravedigging flashforward shown in the movie's opening.

There are times when the various elements at play here come close to spinning out of control. The story is told in a stream of punchy, vividly lensed scenes linked by flashbacks and overlapping narrations. Interracial romance -- a subplot with a white sharecropping family dipping into madness and starvation, veterans panicking at loud noises and not realizing it's PTSD, white theft of black property, the brutalizing economics of cotton farming, and lynching -- all get thrown into the mix. Mudbound is a small-budget movie with big ambitions. A broad and emotional historical melodrama of the kind we don't see too much of anymore, it very often comes close to overheating.

But that's what the best melodramas do; they're always this close to pushing the needle into the red. Also, there's an argument that to pull back would do this kind of story a disservice. In a setting like this, racial hierarchies and endemic poverty are ever-present realities that complicate even the most basic interactions. Several scenes showing some understanding between the two families, whether it's Flo being asked to help nurse the McAllan kids when they come down with whooping cough, or Laura secretly helping out the Jacksons when Hap is laid up from an injury, are layered.

On the one hand, they are grace notes about human understanding, and on the other, they are deadly earnest reminders of the gulfs that remain. At no point during those scenes does Flo ever forget that she is at risk of misstepping the longer she stays near the white family. Nor does Laura ever quite comprehend the burdens her requests put on the Jacksons, as, too, does the covert and overt violence that's perpetuated by her husband and father-in-law. Laura complains frequently in her voiceover musings about the clay-like mud surrounding their home. But never once does this seemingly open-minded woman grouse similarly about the Jim Crow oppression that is just as omnipresent and as stubbornly resistant to being washed away.

It makes for a loud silence.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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