Cinema is Truth: Mudbound (2017)

Directed by Dee Rees. Screenplay by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams
Reviewed by Brittany Alyse

“I held his heartbeat in my hand. I remember every beat. He was warm and alive. I know every place in him, and all I could do was not look back.”

MUDBOUND is a story of experience. A story of hardships. A story of truth we might already know, but so few understand. It’s an essential piece we all need to witness, no matter how familiar we think we are with the African American experience. The opening images of this film focus heavily on America’s roots. The roots that are set deeply within racism, death and cruelty. The audience is immediately put in check -- we are reminded that this is real, and still relevant today. A shameful, harrowing fact that this story does not let us forget. And it shouldn’t.

The introductions to each character are carefully handled, their stories immediately absorbing. There are monologues given by both the Jackson and McAllan family that will absolutely floor you. We see the points of view of six different characters, each carrying history and words that will haunt you. The rural setting is moody and captivating, the tone is distinctive and immediately sweeps you into the feeling of what it must be like to live in a town so encapsulated in the past. This film is set in the late 30s/early 40s, but feels like it’s set in the 1800s. The fact that this town doesn’t seem to move past a certain state of mind or time period is so unsettling and a, frankly, honest portrait of what America was (and is). Dee Rees doesn’t sugarcoat it, either. Her raw storytelling forces the audience to live in what these characters are experiencing. MUDBOUND hits you hard until its ending, and even more-so after the credits roll.

The major points of view that stem from the Jackson family are so important within this story. These are people who deserve so much and who sacrifice more than what they’ve already got. We are introduced to their family dynamic as the family bids farewell to the eldest brother, Ronsel, as he leaves for war. It is a hard thing to witness as Florence turns her back, refusing to watch her son leave because she believes it to be bad luck. We feel her heartbreak. It’s hard not to. Later, at the dinner table, the youngest daughter in the family proclaims she will not grow up to be a farmer, but instead, a stenographer. Her brother quickly reminds her that there are no colored typists, and in a moment of beauty, Hap interjects: “Your sister will be the first.” (Cut to me, watching with tearful eyes, heart growing ten sizes bigger).

Rob Morgan is heartbreakingly good as Hap Jackson, the breakout of this film and the heart of it. A man who constantly gets put through the ringer, Hap bears the weight of the struggle of his family and his ancestors in both his ever-constant tearful gaze and his voice. Rob’s performance of this is incredible, and one of the most powerful things I’ve ever witnessed on screen. Mary J. Blige gives a surprising and gentle performance of a loving mother, selfless in everything she does. There’s a scene between Florence and Ronsel featuring a piece of chocolate that is purer than anything I’ve ever seen. The actors in the Jackson family sell it. They steal your hearts and you want so much to see them achieve their hopes and dreams.

The film grasped me even more so as soon as the focus shifted to the bonds forged between the two very different families. Particularly, the bonds between Florence and Laura, and Ronsel and Jamie. Florence and Laura create this beautiful kinship that’s less about friendship and more about respect. Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige are brilliant together. They have each other’s backs without being too invested, except when it comes to the children-- for them, they open their minds and their hearts.

The bond between Ronsel and Jamie in particular struck me very deeply. I was so afraid that their interactions were going to be hostile, but then this story went and surprised me greatly by making them friends. I tend to be highly drawn to stories about women, and I really can’t remember a time when I was solely invested in a story about men. The vulnerability shared between Ronsel and Jamie is what drew me in, and ultimately I found myself anticipating every scene to be their scenes. This film did not disappoint in that aspect.

Both Ronsel and Jamie are crushingly burdened by PTSD, struggling to adjust back to normal life and what their post-war purposes could be. How stuck they’ve become. How much they long for more. Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund have the best chemistry I’ve seen between male actors in a film in such a long, long time. Both actors, together and separately, express their pain and convey such raw emotion in ways that left me completely stricken. In fact, I’m still in awe.

The end of this movie is hopeful and beautiful in a way that is so different than what we’ve previously seen from films of this subject matter. I was profoundly touched by the closing scene. How much love conquered hate and violence. A damn perfect ending to a beautiful, affecting story.

Dee Rees brings it. The amount of power the images, voiceover and story hold is something I’ve rarely experienced in cinema. It’s genuine and so damn impressive to witness. I wish she were getting the recognition she deserves. It’s saddening to see Dee (among many other deserving artists of color) left out of interview roundtables and even big award show nominations. At a time when there are calls of outrage about not enough female representation and diversity, it should be a no-brainer to include Rees. I’m holding out hope for the Oscars. This film deserves all the praise it can get.

Watch this film. Do not forget this story.

I can’t wait to watch Dee Rees continue to do her thing. You will all know her name. What a force of nature.

Brittany Alyse