Mudbound: Penetrating Period Drama Explores Enduring Racism in America

By Kim Hughes

(RATING: B+)

One of the heaviest things you’ll see all year, period drama Mudbound touches multiple nerves that are as raw today as they were in the film’s WWII era: racism, classism, and poverty all with a uniquely American bent. That is to say: so fully ingrained in the culture as to be the norm rather than the exception.

Mudbound follows two families living precarious (though not quite equally precarious) lives in the Mississippi Delta, circa 1941. The McAllans are displaced city folk trying to eek a living out of their land as newfound farmers. They are white. The Jacksons are terminal sharecroppers working land they don’t own, and never will, for little more than sustenance. They are black.

 Mary J. Blige.

Mary J. Blige.

A McAllan and a Jackson (Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell) each go to war. Meanwhile, the remaining McAllans and Jacksons tentatively lean on each other for help — particularly, the women (Carey Mulligan as Laura and a virtually unrecognizable but excellent Mary J. Blige as Florence) — though it’s clear the former has many more options even in this gruelling and unhospitable setting.

The returning veterans, mentally unhinged but physically intact and now cautious friends, test the bounds of what it means to live in the southern U.S. after witnessing the comparative progressiveness of Europe. Small dramas underscore larger issues: Laura’s lost pregnancy, tended by midwife Florence, echoes the frailty of life. Patriarch Hap Jackson’s broken leg, which threatens to sink the entire family, speaks to a cracked system that invariably favours elites.

Director Dee Reese uses the lengthy runtime (134 minutes) to develop these characters, and we feel genuinely thunderstruck when calamity falls. The film’s climatic scene, involving the KKK and a wayward McAllan (the brilliantly dastardly Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame) is almost unbearable to watch.

Indeed, much of Mudbound — adapted from the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan — is uncomfortably bleak. But it’s as powerful as a punch to the head, which is exactly the point.

Mudbound. Co-written and directed by Dee Rees. Starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige. Premiering on Netflix November 17.