The flat black Delta land: “Mudbound” is an earthy, compelling portrayal of 1940s Mississippi

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“WHEN I think of the farm, I think of mud,” intones Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) in the opening scene of “Mudbound”. “I dreamed in brown.” It’s true that Dee Rees’s new film for Netflix has a palette reminiscent of a painting by Rembrandt. The omnipresent sticky, sodden earth of the Mississippi Delta exerts a force over the characters that is seemingly irresistible. Land is a burden—always on the brink of becoming waterlogged; always needing breaking, sowing, hoeing; always fickle, dragging its owners to their knees with toil and financial woe. And yet it has a fascination for the men and women of “Mudbound”, too. They are indeed bound to it, owning it, craving it, their lives encircled by the same few acres of claggy clods.

On this land, two families work cheek-by-jowl in 1940s Mississippi, but in vastly different circumstances. One family—the McAllans—are white. The Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children, are black. The story is an adaptation of a novel by Hillary Jordan and echoes its source material in its focus on the inner lives of the characters. Laura, in a sensitive portrayal by Ms Mulligan, starts the film as a smart but unhappy 31-year-old spinster who meets and quickly agrees to marry the silent, steady and conservative Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke). His younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), is a great deal more charismatic. Laura is half in love with him even as she settles down eagerly enough to motherhood and a life spent “yielding” to Henry in a decrepit farm that is only ever one storm away from total collapse. Jamie, however, is bound for Europe and the war. So too is Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), eldest son of Hap and Florence, who joins a tank battalion.

This parallel structure allows ample space for the chasm of experience between the two families to be probed by Ms Rees. The Jacksons, particularly Hap, long to truly own the land they till but are always forced to cede ground and dignity to the whites. “No point in fighting,” Hap counsels his son. “They’re just going to win every time.” Henry McAllan intrudes on the Jacksons’ meals and tender moments, hammering at the door and never for a moment doubting that service, subservience and “yessir” apologies for perceived slights are his due. Laura, though kinder, is also firmly a product of her era, making demands on the time and pride of her black tenants. She lets the spite and ugly cruelties of Pappy—her father-in-law with KKK affiliations—go unchecked and unremarked. And yet despite humiliations and hardship, the Jacksons find joy in each other, their relations bubble with warmth even while those of the McAllans crackle with tension.

On their return from the war, Ronsel is the only person Jamie can find capable of understanding his post-traumatic stress and survivors’ guilt. Both return from war shattered by the experience, flinching at loud sounds and chafing at their lives spent working Henry’s land. But the uneasy camaraderie that develops between them only serves as a starker expression of their lived inequality. In Europe, Ronsel was looked up to as a saviour and gained independence and respect from his work. Back home he must sit, barely containing simmering rage, in the “coloureds” section of the bus, avoid “whites only” restaurants and leave premises by the back door. It is also he who bears the consequences of the friendship with Jamie.

Despite the heft of the material, Ms Rees and Rachel Morrison, the cinematographer, have created a finely wrought portrait of the post-war South that shows both the beauty and the filth, without becoming mired in cinematic worthiness. Tender introspection is leavened with periods of action—the wartime scenes electrify—and the performances of Ms Blige, Ms Mulligan and Mr Mitchell are especially compelling. Some viewers will see it as a timely portrayal of the myriad ways that privilege can play out. Others will be struck by the similarities the characters share: the bonds of family, the precariousness of their livelihoods and, of course, the fickle, rain-soaked Mississippi earth.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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