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It’s the rare film that is able to combine love, optimism, and realism so well. Mudbound is very aware of how transformative friendship can be. It can overcome obstacles both within and without, and help us understand each other even in the midst of a hateful time and place bent on keeping us apart. But let the viewer beware, because Mudbound also knows that even the best of us can still be twisted and torn by such an environment. This is not a feel-good story of an interracial friendship overcoming all odds.
The film ably and delicately tells the story of two families in rural post-World War II Mississippi. One is the McAllans, a white landowning family, and the other is the Jacksons, a family of sharecroppers who struggling to make a living. It would be a very simple story if the McAllans were the wealthy, imperious southern aristocrats we so often see, but while they may be better off than their black tenants, they’re hardly the elite. They live right down the road from their renters in a house which is little more than a shack, with no plumbing or electricity.
Laura (Carey Mulligan), the McAllan matriarch, is particularly out of her element, a city girl who has to adapt to a much harsher place. Her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) isn’t too receptive to her needs or feelings, and rarely includes her in any decisions he makes, including those which resulted in them arriving penniless in their current location. She also has to suffer the constant, hate-filled remarks of her father-in-law Pappy (Jonathan Banks), who isn’t shy about voicing his racist views. In any other movie, they would be the sun, with all the other characters orbiting in their wake. But Mudbound never lets us forget their place in the pecking order, and just how much power they have over their neighbors even in their weakened state.
The Jacksons certainly aren’t able to forget, as they struggle to come out ahead so they can find a better life away from the land they’ve been stranded on for generations. Their eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is the keenest to leave, and WWII offers him the opportunity. He comes back a decorated war hero, but quickly discovers that the place that birthed him still considers him less than a man. Life gets more bearable after he befriends Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, another veteran freshly returned home who is even more traumatized by the war. Their friendship is a steadying influence that manages to keep them both sane in an environment where violence is woven into the fabric of everyday life, but it’s also considered a threat to be eradicated, with Ronsel suffering the worst consequences.
Much like director Dee Rees did in Pariah, she creates a film of tremendous empathy, one which never loses sight of its female cast members and the gender expectations they are expected to submit to. Carey Mulligan offers a sympathetic case for a well-meaning woman who overcomes much of her ingrained passivity to do the best she can for the Jacksons, but Mary J. Blige shines even brighter in her role as the Jackson matriarch Florence, who emerges as a fully-formed character rather than another forgettable bundle of wife and mother tropes.
Mudbound may be a portrait of a time long gone, but it’s still heartbreakingly relevant today. It’s not only prejudice and racism that converges in the movie’s horrific climax, but the indifference and cowardice of those more invested in calm waters than their fellow human beings. The film makes a good case for being able to salvage another life and even happiness after such trauma, even if it reminds us that some things will remain damaged beyond repair.