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In the post–World War II South, two families are pitted against a barbaric social hierarchy and an unrelenting landscape as they simultaneously fight the battle at home and the battle abroad.
“Mudbound” is all about perception. How it can foster empathy and engender contempt, sometimes in the same person. How it can cause one man to look at his land with life-affirming pride and another man to see that same plot as the kiss of death. How an act of wartime courage involving a red-tailed plane and a dark-skinned pilot can forever alter one’s opinion of a different race. And how a society can impose unfair, harmful and absurd restrictions on an entire group simply because those people are seen as inferior by the powers that be. The film invites us to observe its characters, to hear their inner voices, to see what they see and to challenge our own preconceived notions about race and gender.
This is a period piece that evokes the grand family epics of old Hollywood, most specifically George Stevens’ 1956 film “Giant.” Like George Stevens’ Oscar winner, “Mudbound” is based on a novel and concerns itself with two families living uneasily on the same land. Director Dee Rees masterfully executes her character study, filling the frame with visuals as big and powerful as the emotions she draws from her superb cast. This is melodrama of the highest order, which is a compliment, for melodrama is not a bad thing. It is part of some of the greatest works of art, and in the right hands, it can elicit an ennui-shattering response from the audience.
We will follow two families, the Jacksons, who are Black, and the McAllans, who are White. The McAllan patriarch, Henry (Jason Clarke) is forced to interact with the Jacksons after he is suckered into a deal to buy land that the seller does not legally own. Henry’s embarrassment is amplified by the taunting rants of his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) and the notion that he has to move into an area designated for a lower class of Whites than he believes himself to be. Henry is constantly reminded of his downgraded stature by the repeated appearances of Vera Atwood (Lucy Faust), a struggling, poor White woman whom he deludes himself into thinking is below his station. Vera is Henry’s ghost of Christmas Future, a reminder that he is one mistake away from her desperate existence. For these reasons, Henry despises the land where he resides.
By comparison, pastor Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) looks at his little plot of land as a gift from God, a blessing that actually elevates his stature from that of his ancestors who couldn’t own land at all. It may be a harsh, at times unforgiving piece of Earth, but he has some form of ownership, no matter how tenuous. Even though Henry has commandeered it mostly for himself, leaving Hap to sharecrop it for diminishing returns, Hap still finds joy, solace and meaning in his farm work. As a Black man in post-WWII America, Hap has become accustomed to making due with even the smallest scraps of good fortune, no matter how infuriating they may seem. Hap is an experienced veteran of the war with Jim Crow; he has bent his anger into a strong, almost impenetrable suit of stoic armor whose weak spots are known only by his loving wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige).