Mudbound grabs you from the first moments and won’t let go. It twists you up, wrings you breathless, and spits you out gasping. Finally, whew, finally, it shows you a break in the cloudy skies to let in a beam of sunshine.
The main characters are conveniently arrayed in this poster. I’ll use it to explain who is who.
The African American man at the front and center of the poster is Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Above him, with the mustache, is Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). These two fought in World War II. When they came home to their families living in the mud and mire of Mississippi delta farmland, they were changed.
On the right side of the poster are Ronsel’s parents, Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Hap (Rob Morgan). Florence and Hap worked land they didn’t own, just as their family had for generations. They had several children besides Ronsel. They had dreams of a better life. A mule. A small plot of land to call their own. Freedom from the oppressive racism that marked their days.
On the left side of the poster are Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Henry (Jason Clarke), a married couple who owned the farm. The older man is Pappy (Jonathan Banks), the father of both Henry and Jamie.
The story began well before the entrance of the United States into the war. That gave us time to get to know these two families. Act One.
Hap and Florence were quiet and dignified. He was a preacher on Sundays. Their daughter wanted to be a stenographer.
Henry married Laura and took her from her comfortable home to the delta to become a farmer’s wife without even telling her he intended to do it. His father Pappy came to live with them.
Pappy was a bitter, hate filled man. He belittled and shamed his sons. He taught them to hate African Americans with the same brutish violence and venom he felt for everyone.
And then the war came. Jamie piloted fighter planes. He was a Captain. Ronsel became a Sergeant in a tank division. There were battle scenes with both of them as well as scenes of Ronsel meeting a woman in Belgium. Act Two.
The war ended Ronsel and Jamie came home. Act Three. Neither was able to live in the world that surrounded them. Ronsel had seen how Europeans treated African Americans – with respect and as equals. He couldn’t adjust to his former position. As an African American, he was broken. He realized racism wasn’t inevitable and acted that way.
Jamie was also broken. He was no longer the racist white supremacist his father wanted him to be. His status as a war hero at first made his father proud. Later it meant nothing to his father when Jamie invited Ronsel to sit in the cab of his truck, to share his whiskey.
Jamie treated Ronsel as a brother. They were friends, sharing experiences and a pint of whiskey nearly every day. Jamie embraced his own pain and humanity. He was kind to Laura. As far as being a white man’s man in the patriarchal sense, he was ruined.
I don’t want to tell you any more about the story because it would spoil the watching of it. Terrible things happened. And good things happened.
The shacks, the muck, the mud, the color palette, even the weather was oppressive and often unbearable. The event that changed things forever for Ronsel and Jamie was both horrible and heroic. The direction from Dee Rees was brilliant.
The unfolding of Mudbound from scene to scene was wonderful storytelling. I loved some characters, felt empathy for others, and hated some. I applaud the way the story resolved without revealing itself in advance.
I know it takes years to make a movie. Dee Rees couldn’t have known when she began working on this film that a legion of hate-filled, spiteful, unfeeling, white patriarchs would be in control of the entire country. They are Pappy run amok with the KKK at their beck and call.
The message of Mudbound is incisive right now – for this moment. I hope many, many people see it. (Even though it is difficult to see.) I hope the actors, the director, and the film receive the awards they earned and deserve with this moving work of art.