|Writer(s)||Virgil Williams, Dee Rees and novel by Hillary Jordan|
|Release Date||November 17, 2017|
Netflix has played a huge part in the way we consume television. When it first started out, the idea of a Netflix Original seemed slightly strange. Surely there was no way that a streaming service could produce something as polished as HBO? Now we’re at a place where Netflix are master content creators, whether that’s original content like Orange is the New Black, or rejuvenating existing properties like Fuller House or Arrested Development. Not content with just producing regular TV shows, the last few years have seen Netflix make a concerted effort to move into producing genuine movies. The latest to make it to the streamed-screen, and with a small-ish theatrical run for good measure, is Mudbound by director Dee Rees.
What’s going on in Netflix Original Mudbound?
Mudbound is a tale of two farmers, who are living in rural Mississippi and trying to cope with all of the fun that goes along with farming in the 1940s. The McAllans are a white family who moves out into the country so that Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) can turn his back on city life in favour of following his dream of owning his own cotton farm. In tow, he has his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), two daughters, and his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks). The Jacksons are a black family who live on the farm as sharecroppers (essentially tenants who give a portion of their crops over as rent). Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) work the land with their five children, dreaming of earning enough so that they can finally own a place of their own,
Mississippi in the 1940s. I imagine there are some robust opinions being thrown around?
That is putting it mildly. One of the things that struck me while I was watching Mudbound was just how depressingly relevant this story is today. In a year where we are constantly reminded of racial tensions and a worrying, creeping shift to the political Right, there are a lot of familiar elements in this film.
There’s no escaping the fact that race plays a huge part in Mudbound and there’s perhaps no better illustration of the mood and social norms of the time then when the McAllans first arrive at the farm. Henry strolls up and tells Hap that he needs help unloading, and a fire going before it gets dark. There’s no debate, there’s no question of him coming back tomorrow when it’s more convenient. Both families just know what’s going to happen. Henry at least pretends to civil at times, but his father is mean and unrelenting in his contempt for the Jacksons, whether it’s telling offensive jokes, refusing to sit next to Hap in the truck, or bullying and humiliating Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), Hap and Florence’s oldest son, at the local store.
That sounds like it’s going to be pretty heavy?
Absolutely, this is not a feel-good Sunday night type movie. I found it to be quite a difficult watch at times, but it also felt like essential viewing. It’s still unfathomable to me that the kind of attitudes on display in Mudbound was just par for the course, and that they’re getting something of a resurgence lately. That said there is more to the film than just racism and farming. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel both leave their respective families to go and fight in the war. When they come back it’s their friendship that becomes the emotional core of the film.
Well, that sounds like it might be slightly more upbeat?
Kind of. When the two return from the war it’s clear that they are both haunted by things that no one else can begin to understand. Jamie, a decorated bomber pilot, struggles with day-to-day life, relying quite heavily on alcohol to get through the day. He doesn’t even get any recognition or comfort from his father. He brands him a coward because he never looked into the eyes of the people he has killed. Ronsel is no doubt haunted by the things he’s seen and done but it almost feels like his return to Mississippi is equally as traumatic. His time in Europe has been free from the kind of racial discrimination he deals within the Deep South. It’s not a way of life he wants to return to.
The two become friends then?
Very much so. It’s at least an hour into the film before the two of them meet. Once they do the other characters almost fall by the wayside as we focus on their friendship. It’s this friendship that really drives a lot of the drama going forward. Whether it’s the two of them coping with their shared experiences in the war, or the fact their friendship comes at a time when segregation was still very much alive and well.
So what’s Netflix Original Mudbound really about then?
I guess there’s not a big overarching plot with any kind of MacGuffin. It’s just a film about life in the Deep South and the people who are trying to make their lives there. It’s very much focused on the characters that live there and the things they’re experiencing. I think this is an essential story that really needs to be seen. It’s really helped by superb performances right across the board.
Who’s the one to watch then?
It’s pretty much impossible to pick a standout performance because every single one of the key characters is brilliantly played. The characters feel natural and real. It feels more like watching a documentary at times, rather than actors playing characters. I think that Mary J Blige will attract a lot of the attention when the awards season rolls around. She is entirely unrecognizable to the point where I had to double check on IMDb that it was actually her. Everything that I associate with Mary J Blige was completely stripped away. I was really impressed with Garrett Hedlund as Jamie. He does a really good job of conveying a man haunted by his experiences. We meet him before he goes to war and he is charming, charismatic and supremely confident. The man that returns is very different, and the character almost unrecognizable.
I think it’s hard to say that I enjoyed it, but I very much admired the film. It’s an impressive film, an incredibly immersive experience with excellent, believable performances right across the board. This is a film that sadly still resonates today. It’s a film that was uncomfortable to watch at times but there are also shreds of hope to be found in here. I found the conclusion a little jarring but not so much that it would ruin the experience for me.
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Oli has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. He has a PhD in Computer Science and he writes articles about TV, film and, very occasionally, science.