On January 1st, 1863, slavery ended. That’s the day the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ was issued. For many blacks, male and female, slavery in everything but name continued until sweeping Civil Rights legislation was passed in the 1960’s.
Mudbound is set during the 1940’s in the American South, Tennessee. The heart of the film is Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund). Ronsel is a black man who comes from a family of sharecroppers, including his mother Florence (Mary J. Blige), and his father Hap (Rob Morgan). Screenwriter and Director, Dee Rees makes a brilliant decision to focus on sharecropping. It’s a profession that’s rarely represented on film.
To give some the skinny, sharecropping is when someone rents land from a land owner. They do all the farming and the raising and such, get to live on the land and make a bit of cash, whereby giving a tidy sum to the land owner. Sounds like a great idea, right? Now, what happens when farming equipment breaks down? Well, the sharecropper has to rent new equipment from the land owner, thereby putting the sharecropper deeper in debt. Sharecropping was the result of generations of blacks being left behind by a government that had freed them, but had given them little else. Glad to see that’s all changed!
Ronsel’s white counterpart, Jamie comes from an educated family. He’s an English major, you know all the purest souls are English majors, from Oxford. We actually don’t know what his family does. We know that they used to be farmers. They don’t get back into farming until Jamie’s brother, Henry (Jason Clarke) decides to buy a farm and drags his poor wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), quite literally, into the mud.
There are few obviously evils souls in Mudbound, except for Pappy (Johnathan Banks). If you want to imagine Pappy, just think of the most racist person you’ve ever met in your life, then imagine a little bit of Hitler sprinkled in along with psycho demented care bear to boost. That’s Pappy. He’s Jamie’s father, a man taken in by Henry when Pappy’s wife passes away. In actuality, Henry would have been better off leaving Pappy in a shed with a couple of mountain lions and seeing which one really is the most involved species.
Rees’s greatest strength in this film is how she’s able to use history to her advantage. She has very little need to embellish because these trials are woven within our heritage. None more so than World War II. The war, for many blacks, was a chance to not only fight for their country, but as an economic step ladder. Many dreamed of valor, of coming home as heroes. Instead, most black men ended up peeling potatoes or shining shoes. Ronsel is a different story. He becomes a tank commander in General Patton’s army. This is actually true to life. There was an all-black tank division during WWII. Jamie, on the other hand, becomes a bomber pilot. Both men return home from war.
When the two return home from war, Rees accurately captures not just the struggles soldiers had with PTSD, but also how blacks who saw less discrimination oversees were “treated” to far worse behavior when they came home. Black men who had once been officers, greeted with a salute, were reduced to “boy.” Ronsel struggles with this.
Mudbound is also littered with competing backstories. Much of the film is done through voice over from each character. A voice over can either be distracting pastiche, or intrinsically laced storytelling. Here, it’s the latter. There’s Henry, who essentially a system guy. He’s the kind of guy who says, “Just following orders.” There’s Laura, who’s probably the nearest thing to a decent person of the white characters other than Jamie. Hap is another kind soul. He just wants a little plot of land to call his own. Which one wouldn’t think would be too much to ask for, but people are still waiting on that mule.
Of all the “background” characters, it’s Florence who is the connective glue between each family’s domesticity. In terms of film experience, Blige, has little prior. Nevertheless, she is probably the best actor/actress in this cast, performance wise.
She at once plays homemaker, farmer, mother, and servant. No scene encapsulates a southern black’s experience in 40’s than Florence agreeing to take on the role of nurse and servant when Laura’s children come down with whooping cough. When Henry comes to ask Florence to help, he’s asking, but he’s not really asking. He’s a white landowner asking a black woman, whose husband is a sharecropper, to be a nurse. In actuality, there’s only one answer. And it ain’t, “no.” Florence is forced to become nurse and servant because of her race. If she were to say no, then her family would be ruined. In this scene, Rees captures the fatal conundrum faced with being a freed black citizen, without any of freedom’s benefits.
In essence, Mudbound isn’t a fable. It relies on actual history to say something more about ourselves. It captures how close we still are to the period, and how much further we still have to go. The hate present in the period, in the customs, in the belief system permeates through the bloodlines. As each child sees their father or mother treat another in harsh retaliation because of a difference of skin color. It takes a cataclysmic event to change those hateful feelings, in some cases a kind gesture, in others, a war. But often, the hate isn’t just in the air, it’s in the mud.
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Photo Credit: Film School Rejects