Smart Living

Mudbound: A film for our times

The cast and director of Netflix’s star-studded historic drama reflect on its message as America’s racial tensions mount

Let’s be candid: Mudbound doesn’t make for easy viewing. Netflix’s new feature-length period drama, written and directed by Dee Rees, is a stirring film, but difficult to watch.

It follows the intersecting lives of two families – one black, one white – on a cotton plantation in post-war Greenville, Mississippi, as their young men return scarred from the Western Front to an impoverished community riven by racial tensions.

Rees set out to make a film that looks at the correlation between America’s past and present race issues from a black perspective. ‘I think everything that’s going on today will make people more receptive to the film,’ she tells The Jackal. ‘We’re just pulling up the table cloth and saying: “look, America hasn’t changed – this is who we’ve always been.”’

Mudbound, review, The Jackal magazine

Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson and Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan

The film airs amid heightened tensions in America. Clashes involving far-right hate groups have brought the continued divisions in the country into sharp focus. President Trump’s risible response to the situation has poured oil on the fire. Mudbound is part social commentary, part fable, part tragedy, and pitched perfectly against the current climate. 

‘It’s a story about how people found love in a hopeless place,’ says Mary J. Blige, who plays world-weary matriarch, Florence Jackson. ‘Racism is a hopeless place. Those times were hopeless, and two families found each other and realised they needed each other more than they thought they did.’ Sadly, as viewers will discover, the bond the two families form also helps destroy them.

Rees marshalls an impressive cast. Along with Blige, who has already picked up a brace of awards for her performance, the principle parts are played by Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, who were all attracted by the chance to make a film that passes comment on contemporary American racism.

‘I struggled with my character at first,’ Mulligan tells The Jackal. ‘But I loved working with Dee and the story we were telling.’ For Clarke, the story’s power is in how it deals with racial apathy as well as hate. ‘It’s a very visceral film,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t leave you sitting there – you really walk away with something. My part was interesting because Henry is a good, kind-hearted man who’s also a racist.’

In fact, much of the film’s success is in peeling away Henry’s ignorance of his own racism, which is, the film suggests, at the root of so many of today’s problems. ‘There are people in our society that are racist but don’t hate – like Henry,’ explains Rees. ‘That’s the next thing society has to break down. Often, when people say: “I’m not racist,” what they’re really saying is: “I’m not hateful,” but large parts of America still pass judgements based on the country’s unconscious inheritance.’

Blige, whose performance has been tipped for an Oscar, agrees. ‘I related to Florence straight away because my mother is Florence,’ she says. ‘She’s from the South and every summer we’d go down and see my grandparents there. I saw how things were in their community. I understood Florence, and I wanted to be a part of a project that says: “this is still going on.”’

Similarly, Mitchell – who plays Blige’s victimised son Ronsel – connected with his part because of his own family history. ‘I’m only three generations away from slavery – my grandfather’s oldest brother was a slave,’ he says. ‘Still, to this day, if we’re in the room and he offers an opinion about someone white, he’ll whisper it.’

Mudbound, movie review, The Jackal magazine

Mary J. Blige as Florence Jackson and Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson, Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan

During filming last year, Blige had to record one of her most heartbreaking scenes on the day news broke of a lynching in nearby Atlanta. ‘I was destroyed,’ she says, her tone grim. ‘Those tears in the movie, they’re from this sad news.’

This also struck a chord with Blige because in Mudbound, Florence’s son Ronsel (Mitchell) suffers a similar ordeal. This part of the movie is particularly difficult to watch, but as Rees points out, it had to be. ‘People use the phrase “hard to watch” conveniently to justify looking away from difficult things that speak the truth,’ she says. ‘We have to not look away. If you can watch Reservoir Dogs or A Clockwork Orange – you can watch that scene.’

Watching Mudbound is an intensely human experience. It’s packed with striking motifs and symbols, none more potent than the mud itself, a metaphor for mankind’s common origins. Much of the film’s power is in the questions it poses; do things ever change? How do communities survive troubled times? Can two wrongs ever make a right? The film never stoops to facile conclusions.

The result is an important and emotive drama, and its message is as pertinent to our society today as it was 70 years ago. Mudbound isn’t an easy watch. But it is one of the most morally and culturally important movies of our time.

Mudbound will be available to stream on Netflix and in Curzon cinemas on 17 November