Historical stories about the American South tend to get lumped into one of two periods: the 1860s, because of the Civil War, or the 1960s, because of the fight for civil rights. That obviously leaves a vast amount of time — and the political, racial, and personal stories it contains, underrepresented in movies.
Writer/director Dee Rees tells one such story in the devastating and deeply felt Mudbound. The film centers around two families in Mississippi in the Jim Crow-era 1940s: The McAllans, a white family led by Henry (Jason Clarke) and Laura (Carey Mulligan); and the Jacksons, a black family led by Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige).
Both families are farmers, with the Jacksons renting land that the McAllans own. The struggles each family face are immense, though given the deep-set racism of the time, it’s clear which family has more of an uphill battle. There is an inherent distrust on both sides, a barrier that is not easily broken down.
When World War II starts, each family sends one member to fight: Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and the Jacksons' son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Their separate experiences in Europe change both in many ways — changes that are at odds with the stubborn attitudes they’re met with when they return.
Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams, working from the book by Hillary Jordan, do a phenomenal job of conveying what it was like for people living in their situations. This is not a pretty movie in any sense; it gets down and dirty, often literally, so that you can feel the griminess of the work — and sometimes, of the people.
Overt racism has been depicted so much in Civil War or civil rights movies that it sometimes loses its ability to shock. Rees makes sure to keep the specter of racism ever-present while saving its most horrendous consequences until the moments when they’re most effective. The two families may share similar lives, but they’ll never be equal, at least not in 1940s Mississippi.
The acting across the board is near-perfect. Clarke, Morgan, and Mulligan each give performances that would be award-worthy in almost any other movie. But they’re outshone by Mitchell, Hedlund, and especially Blige, who lays herself bare in giving her all to the role.
Given that it’s a Netflix movie with a limited theatrical release, there may be skepticism at the strength of Mudbound. But it’s simply one of the best movies of the year no matter the platform, and it’s sure to be a big contender come Oscars time.