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.