“Mudbound” begins near the end and then circles back to tell the stories of two men in rural Mississippi in the 1940s. Walking out of the movie which opened AFI FEST (9 November 2017, Thursday), I wanted to hug every black person who survived of the Jim Crow era and pray for those who didn’t.
Based on a book by Hillary Jordan, the story begins in the mud with two men digging a great hole, deep and rectangular, for the coffin of their father. We hear the viewpoint of the younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) assessing his brother Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke). We also hear how Henry’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) feels about the mud and then the men.
Two men can’t handle a coffin well and they ask for some help from the Jackson family, headed by the father Hap (Rob Morgan) and mother Florence (Mary J. Blige). The look Florence gives Henry speaks of suppressed anger, but Hap’s visage also reveals fear. The sense of Henry’s white privilege hangs in the air.
We don’t at first clearly understand the scene, except that the mud plagues the lives of these farmers. If you’re not familiar with history, the film soon shows the racial divide: White farmers own the land and collect from their “grateful” black tenant farmers.
From the sound of Laura’s comments, you can tell that she wasn’t to this life born. Laura was a teacher, on the wrong side of the age game, who at 31 was an unloved virgin, destined for spinsterhood when she’s introduced to Henry. They marry and she’s grateful for their married life; she enjoys caring for him and they have daughters. She might perhaps enjoy the company of her charming brother-in-law too much, but he’s what was once called a ladies man. Ladies find him naturally charming and light up under his attention and Laura is no different.
Henry isn’t satisfied with the large kitchen, cute home and beautiful car. He remembers how his grandfather lived on a spacious farm, one that he believes should have rightfully been his except that his grumpy father sold the farm. Now, without asking his wife, he sinks everything they own into a farm.
When they move to what was supposed to be their rental house in the town, they learn they’ve been swindled by one of their own. A white man shook his hand and took his $100, but then sold the house to someone else. The family is forced to move into an empty tenant farmer house. The downgrade in their lifestyle is hard, particularly for Laura.
What they could avoid in town, but can’t avoid here is the blatant racism. Racism comes in various degrees. Pappy’s racism is rigid hate. Henry’s is paternalistic. Laura’s is more fluid; she comes to depend upon Florence. What sets off the horrific action that changes everything between the McAllans and the Jacksons is Jamie’s reactions toward a fellow World War II veteran, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell).
While the diverging narrators are revealing, in the end, it is the story of these two men. We don’t learn what Laura feels or how her problems will be resolved, if she remains literally mudbound. We know that she is, unlike her husband, not bound to the dirty ways of racism. In that respect, she’s more like her brother-in-law.
World War II was the last war where the US military was segregated, but that didn’t end prejudice. Were the horrors of war and the savagery we often consign to the Axis forces, particularly Germany and Japan, really so different from the race war as fought in the Deep South under Jim Crow laws? “Mudbound” is about the muck and mud of prejudice and how we really do need each other, no matter what race, in order to find peace in this world.
“Mudbound” was the opening night gala movie for AFI FEST 2017. It made its world premiere at Sundance this year and was released nationwide on 17 November 2017.