Netflix’s original film (cinema would be stretching the point) output so far has been patchy at best, but with around 50 movies released this year and a further 80 planned for 2018, they look set to remain a fixture for the foreseeable future. While they've been steadily recruiting a roster of impressive directors and throwing plenty of money at projects, the critical reception has remained lukewarm at best. With awards season on the way Mudbound could be the film that finally begins to change that perception, a powerful civil rights era adaptation that confirms the talent director Dee Rees demonstrated with her 2011 debut, Pariah.
The story is seen through two families who share the same harvest fields – the owners are white and the tenant farmers are black – ambitiously spread across six character perspectives. Rees skilfully maintains a strong narrative balance giving life to three members of each family who speak about their personal experiences in 1940s Mississippi. Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name took a similar approach but to pull it off successfully on film, while giving an inner voice to each one, takes a certain level of craft. The voice of Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) opens the film, speaking about his relationship with older brother Henry (Jason Clarke), who is married to Laura (Carey Mulligan), a voice we also hear reflecting on the submissive wife role she plays for her husband.
This broad novelistic style continues to heighten our insight as we are introduced one-by-one, the personal drama of their lives slowly furnished with meaning. At the other end of the land live the Jacksons, where Hap (Rob Morgan) and wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) struggle to maintain the cotton fields and meet the seasonal demands once eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is conscripted for war duty. It's upon his return that we are given a rare insight into how life on the frontlines provided a sense of freedom for black soldiers (that they had to go to war to find liberation is perverse in itself). While fighting the Nazis they no longer faced constant reminders about the colour of their skin, and arriving back in America with a new found confidence become a key turning point that helped push forward the civil rights movement over the next two decades.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison continues her impressive work seen in films like Dope and The Sound of My Voice, shooting grainy sun and rain drenched Mississippi vistas decorated with gloriously painterly skylines. Rees is careful not to create a feeling of nostalgia through either the setting or the period, and the ruggedness of the land demonstrates the varying degrees of hardship felt by both sets of families. With such a wide spread of personalities all vying for attention there are no real leads as such, but the friendship forged by the characters of Mitchell and Hedlund is impressively believable.
While the characters have been well cast there is one that remains problematic, and his eventual importance to the story makes it hard to overlook. Jonathan Banks’ “Pappy” McAllan lacks any sort of nuance at all, a bitter racist who is as unpleasant at home to his sons as he is towards the Jacksons. Banks is a more than capable actor but is failed by the bluntness of a role which mostly exists as a plot device to engineer a cruel and unexpected conclusion to the families' land sharing arrangement. It feels particularly out of place against the more subtle racism of Henry’s actions and the genuine bond that develops between Ronsel and Jamie. There is no doubt that men such as “Pappy” existed at the time, (and still do) but seen against everyone else his one dimensional existence seems like a curious choice.
As a character piece Mudbound looks back at a period that may seem far away from today's world, but is closer to our reality than some would wish to believe. Rees brings the inner struggles of these people to life through the interactions of two families locked into an uncomfortable partnership. There is heartfelt warmth to line the sadness and enough room made to reflect on where we are seven decades later. It shows there is still plenty of work ahead of us, which can only be achieved by rolling up our sleeves and getting some dirt under our fingernails.