Not unlike the year 2016 in politics, writer/director Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, Mudbound, starts off as a slow, plodding look at the casual systemic racism embedded in America’s DNA before it explodes into an explicit extravaganza of pain and horror. Unlike the year 2016 in politics, the perpetrators of said pain and horror in Mudbound don’t keep tweeting evil gibberish every morning. Still, the point the film makes about the inseparable nature of white violence and bigotry and American identity is maybe the best way to understand how Alabama just damn-near elected an alleged pedophile as a senator over a man who put KKK members in prison. That is to say, set in the late 1930s and ’40s or not, Mudbound matters.
Unlike Rees’ pitch-perfect Pariah, Mudbound struggles a bit out of the gate. Likely a result of condensing a sprawling narrative, this account of the hellishly crappy life of two families in Tennessee takes its darn time building towards a singularly jarring climax. Laura (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Henry (Jason Clarke), move to a small house on a farm worked by Hap (Rob Morgan) and his family, who are “free” in legal description only. Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and Hap’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), are both enlisted to fight Nazis overseas. To think, if they were alive today, they could have battled those same foes without ever leaving the United States!
Although they didn’t know each other during the war, Jamie and Ronsel become something like friends. Jamie has every capital letter in PTSD, and Ronsel can’t cope with going from beloved liberator and quasi-equal overseas to being loathed and assumed inferior because of his skin color. Speaking of skin color, Henry and Jamie’s dad, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), is a proud piece of shit. From taunting Hap’s wife, Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), to shaming Ronsel, he’s basically a hate-fueled facsimile of our current Attorney General. If you guessed that a naked embrace of racism ends poorly for literally everyone, congratulations on staying abreast of current news.
As much as historical documentation, and perhaps more so, fictional accounts of the past help build and shape our collective consciousness and national narrative. This explains why so much of our creative discourse shies away from fully capturing and recreating the horror of our very recent past. To watch Mudbound is to remember that unfathomably disgusting crimes perpetrated against the black community aren’t just stored in paper, film and photographs; they’re stored in the actual memories of those still living.
The acting here is universally OK, with Blige’s tempered, tragic performance getting the most acclaim and Hedlund getting a bit too much screen time with which to chew on his weird, semi-nonsensical drawl. The pace of the film is slightly disjointed, and it’s a half-step down from Rees’ last big-screen effort. But none of that means it comes up short of required viewing. To understand the rage and fear of the present requires an unflinching look at our past. Mudbound never flinches, even if you will.