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Few escape a mud fight—literal or metaphoric—without getting dirty. This seems to be the theme of Mudbound, independent writer-director Dee Rees’ sprawling drama about two families in the race-charged, 1940s South. The film provides a sobering look at the past—though the look provides little to uplift.
The film is not shy about depicting every facet of racism, and much more besides: It earns a strong R for parading language, graphic violence, sexual and non-sexual nudity, and adultery across the screen.
The Jacksons, an African-American family of sharecroppers, have lived in Mississippi for generations but never owned the land they farm. “This place say you need a deed, not deeds,” father Hap says in one of the many poetic voice-overs from each of the main characters. The McAllans, a white family, move to the farm from town. As outsiders, they must grow used to the rural culture.
The first half of the film centers on the personal struggles and subtle friendship between the two matriarchs, played masterfully by Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan. The second half follows the friendship between Ronsel Jackson and brother-in-law Jamie McAllan, both former GIs affected by PTSD and a war where black and white served with equal valor.
However, the other McAllan men—and their culture—tarnish these friendships with hideous racism.
Mudbound manages to balance tragic epic with intimate family drama, sweeping shots of muddy fields with weatherworn faces. Netflix, the film’s distributor, is releasing it to selected theaters as well as streaming in a likely hope that it will gain Academy Award nominations for its strong acting and direction.
Certain scenes provide moments of racial reconciliation and hope: As Blige’s character nannies the McAllan children to provide for her own family, she says, “I know that love is a kind of survival.”
But more of the film’s tone is suggested by the film’s framing sequence: a burial where everyone literally wallows in mud, without real hope of forgiveness.