The epic yet intimate “Mudbound” from director Dee Rees isn’t simply about an isolated, horrific event for a single black family or even a horrific period for black people in American history. By covering an oft-overlooked era and lifestyle, Rees is adding to the larger cinematic narrative around the American black experience, deepening our understanding – and hopefully our empathy. “Mudbound” doesn’t exist in a vacuum: its characters are affected by the centuries of slavery that preceded them, and their lives offer insight into the institutional racism and net worth inequality that continues to plague America today.
Rees’ sprawling “Mudbound” follows two families in Mississippi in the 1940s. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) takes his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), and daughters from Memphis, south to the rural delta, intent on being a farmer. After being swindled out of a beautiful farmhouse, he moves his family along with his father (Jonathan Banks) into a rundown shack that’s perpetually surrounded by mud. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) is a share tenant on McAllan’s land, and he and his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige) help out the McAllans with farm and housework, as they struggle to make their payments. Meanwhile, Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) each fight in World War II, and bring back their experiences with them when they return home. Jamie still hears bombs and shots everywhere he goes, while Ronsel realizes the freedom and respect he had as a sergeant in Europe doesn’t translate to the South.
The keyword “sharecropper” brings up just 30 movies in an IMDb search. Considering that one of those is “The Jerk” and the other is “The Song of the South,” many of these films aren’t nuanced portraits of black life in the 19th and 20th centuries. Sandwiched between slavery and the height of Civil Rights activism in the ’60s, the Jim Crow years are rarely a focus – and even more rarely are black people in rural areas allowed a voice on screen. By giving each main character narration, Rees, who is black and female herself, is literally changing that, allowing viewers the chance to hear exactly what characters are thinking and giving a window into their lives.
Despite Henry being called a fool by his own father and lacking experience at farming, he is still in a position of power over Hap and his family. This dynamic isn’t the slavery of the previous century, but each man knows his own role within 1940s Mississippi and Henry is content to exploit that unbalance. While Henry owns the farm, Hap struggles to maintain his plot with fewer resources and less money and must do everything the owner asks. Even Henry worries about making enough money, but given the systemic oppression, it is nearly impossible for Hap to be a success.
Though “Mudbound” is set decades after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still economic aftereffects for the Jackson family. Previous generations may have been legally free, but American culture (particularly in the South) still imposed limits on black people that hindered them financially. The Jacksons should be on the same playing field as the McAllans, but it’s clear that they’re not. That inequality is echoed today, with black families having only 1/10 of the net worth of white families. Starting off with more often leads to having more, and this is not a problem that originated with our current generation.
Despite all the pervasive inequality and racism in the world of “Mudbound” – and ours – it still ends on a hopeful note. Rees’ film offers optimism for future generations with one of the Jackson children aspiring for a career beyond the family farm. The drama’s last scene also emphasizes the importance of love in a world where hate threatens to rule, refusing to let oppression have the final word.
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