‘Mudbound’ is an American classic. Will that be enough to sway anti-Netflix Oscar voters?
A heart-wrenching and masterfully executed look at the legacy of Jim Crow
I can’t wait to see how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handles Mudbound.
Within the academy, there’s an institutional aversion to Netflix, the streaming giant that’s upended how we see movies, much to the chagrin of traditional distributors and movie theater exhibitors. But if ever there was a Netflix film that deserves to break through the bias, it’s Mudbound, a heart-wrenching, masterfully executed period epic from director Dee Rees.
Mudbound, which opens Nov. 17, takes the idea of two Americas popularized in the early 1960s by Michael Harrington and pivots from his thesis of a country divided by class to explore the way poor Americans of The Other America are divided by race. Based on the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, the film follows two families in the lead-up to World War II: the Jacksons, who are black, and the McAllans, who are white. The Jacksons are sharecroppers on the McAllans’ land, and both have sons who end up fighting for their country.
It’s almost Shakespearean, except unlike the Capulets and Montagues, the Jacksons and McAllans need each other, even if they don’t see themselves as the same. That goes double for Pappy McAllan, the family’s racist, sexist patriarch played with expert precision by Jonathan Banks. Pappy’s an irascible vestige of the Confederacy who is short on tact and long on grievances with everything around him, from the black people contributing to his family’s livelihood, to his daughter-in-law, Laura (Carey Mulligan). While the McAllans may not have much — in fact, they have so little that Pappy sleeps in a lean-to — the Jacksons have even less.
Still, if there’s anything like a great equalizer, it’s military service, and both the Jacksons and the McAllans experience anguish as sons Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) head off to kill Germans. Mary J. Blige gives a stunning performance as Ronsel’s mother, Florence. Her emotions, especially in front of Pappy’s daughter-in-law Laura (Carey Mulligan), his favored son, Henry (Jason Clarke), and other white people, are layered and controlled, rendering Blige nearly unrecognizable. It was nearly 45 minutes into the film before I realized why Florence felt so familiar — she’s played by the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
Florence is worried about her son and how the family will manage to break even in his absence, especially after her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan), suffers a gruesome injury. Laura worries about her brother-in-law Jamie, who is everything his father can’t stand: cultured, charming and not remotely cut out for farm work. Before he shipped off to Europe he even dabbled in acting. While Pappy may seem indifferent to his son’s fate, Laura insisted on moving a piano into their dirt-floor shack and sees Jamie as more than just a cosmopolitan nuisance.
It’s Laura and Florence who find a way to bridge the racial divide, if only because it’s key to their continued existence. Farming in the Mississippi Delta is backbreaking, frustrating, never-ending work, especially without the luxuries of electricity or indoor plumbing.
Rees also leaves her stamp on the Mudbound script, which she co-wrote with Virgil Williams, weaving in some thematic continuity from her stint as the writer/director of the HBO biopic Bessie. There’s a line in Bessie in which the famed blues singer from the early 20th century explains the difference between Northern and Southern racism. Northern whites, she says, don’t mind if you get big as long as you don’t get too close. And Southern whites don’t mind if you get close so long as you don’t get too big.
Once Ronsel returns from commanding a tank in Belgium, it becomes clear that he’s way too big for his white countrymen in Mississippi, and they’re itching to take him down a peg.
Hollywood’s anti-Netflix bias, the one that likely killed the Oscar chances of Beasts of No Nation in 2016, has scared off some independent filmmakers who want their films to have a shot during awards season. When a bidding war erupted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 for Birth of a Nation, for instance, Netflix had the highest offer. But director Nate Parker went with Fox Searchlight, betting that the company and the film would be better received when it came to award campaigning.
Mudbound highlights how much the motion picture academy needs to get over its Netflix snobbery. Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects. Its best recent films have boasted directors of color: 13th (Ava DuVernay), Okja (Bong Joon-ho), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and now Mudbound. Minority directors do not often have the luxury of dismissing generous offers from Netflix. So when the members of the academy turn up their noses at the company, they’re also dismissing some of the best work Hollywood has to offer. If Mudbound is ignored during awards season because the academy and other industry groups can’t get over their aversion to Netflix’s business model, it will only reflect poorly on them. Mudbound is just that good.
Rees directs Mudbound with a confidence often anathema to mainstream film. She trusts her audience to follow her around narrative blind corners. And so, as Mudbound unfolds, it inspires engagement and curiosity. Every small choice Rees makes is a deliberate one with immense payoff. There are no extravagances, no unexplained moments that could have been done away with in the edit bay. (That’s why I’m revealing so little of the plot. It’s best if you come to it cold.)
If there’s a downside to Mudbound, it’s that most audiences will experience it from the comfort of their couches, or on their laptop or tablet screens. This is a film ideally experienced on the biggest screen possible. A theatrical audio system allows for a full appreciation of Damian Volpe and Pud Cusack’s chillingly immersive sound design, which captures the misery of a midsummer driving rain on the Gulf Coast and the thick, squelching morass of waterlogged Mississippi Delta silt loam.
On the other hand, Netflix, which boasts more than 50 million American subscribers, offers ample opportunity for almost anyone to witness a magnificent work of art — one that brings us face-to-face with the massive cruelties and savage inequalities of Jim Crow and forces us to reckon with its legacies. Here’s hoping the academy sees it the same way.