‘Mudbound’ mirrors modern America with depiction of 1940s racism

Charles Liu

To call “Mudbound” a period piece would do it a disservice. Yes, the film is about two families — one white, one black — who struggle to get by on unforgiving Mississippi farmland in the 1940s, but this masterfully crafted drama of the past is also one of the timeless conflict between race and class.

The movie begins with the white McAllans purchasing the farmland which African-Americans Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), along with their children, have been diligently working as tenants. The McAllan patriarch, Henry (Jason Clarke), is not a good farmer, which means he often rudely demands Hap and
Florence’s aid.

“Mudbound” relies on counterpart characters from both families to illustrate how skin color dominates all aspects of social life. Henry and Hap, as well as Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence, are in many ways the same, but the hierarchy controls how they behave. Henry refuses to acknowledge Hap’s needs when he suffers a broken leg. Meanwhile, Hap must refer to him
as “sir.”

When the McAllans have settled in, “Mudbound” shifts its focus to the eldest Jackson son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a veteran who helped liberate Europe from the Nazis and tasted freedom and respect while abroad. Upon his return to Mississippi, Ronsel has far less tolerance for the daily racism he experiences. Unfortunately, his defiance of a Jim Crow South even draws ire from his family, rather than praise. The possibility of retaliation cows them, for they are still, in a sense, slaves.

Luckily for him, Ronsel finds companionship in Henry’s younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), another veteran who drowns his painful memories of war with alcohol. Both men cross the uneasy divide between their families and form an unlikely bond. But their relationship threatens their safety as Henry and Jamie’s racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), lurks in the wings, ready to strike.

Mitchell, who previously starred as Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” continues to display the same charisma and sincerity that makes him a likable performer. Even though he’s surrounded by an extremely talented cast, Mitchell is very clearly the soul of “Mudbound.” As Jamie, Hedlund brings a roguish, freewheeling charm that provides a foil to Ronsel’s seriousness, but he also channels a tragic vulnerability when his character’s grief resurfaces again
and again.

There are a lot of films as busy and sprawling as “Mudbound,” but few filmmakers have the same command of character and plot as writer-director Dee Rees. Drawing from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, Rees
frequently and seamlessly hops between the narratives of the McAllans and the Jacksons without damaging the picture’s pacing. She does this by connecting scenes with thematic threads and parallel events, highlighting the universality in the characters’ struggles while deftly pushing their arcs forward. The resulting film is both epic and intimate in scope.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison excellently films the dire Mississippi squalor, imbuing “Mudbound” with an overbearing gloominess. The sludge is nigh impossible to escape, and mud clings to black and white bodies alike. Both the McAllans and the Jacksons have been brought low, but Henry and Pappy lack the self-awareness to realize they are no better off than their black neighbors. The bleak imagery ensures that this irony is obvious.

“Mudbound” is snapshot of a time before, but it grapples with issues that are startlingly familiar, issues that still play out on the airwaves today. It challenges perspectives by reminding us that we all share hopes and dreams, fears and nightmares, the capacity to love and to hate. It reflects on the power of decency, and how acts of kindness go a long way toward building a
better tomorrow.