Based on a novel by Hilary Jordan, Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a moving Second World War fable set in the Mississippi Delta that does not shy away from the ugliness of racism. Netflix’s cinematic outing is more than deserving of theatrical exhibition, however limited.
Mudbound opens with white farmer Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and younger brother Jamie (the always-charismatic Garrett Hedlund) digging a grave for their father in the pouring rain. We don’t yet know the reason for their urgency, or why their black neighbours who pass them by on a buggy are so reluctant to help lower the coffin. Cue several years earlier, and Henry is seeking the affections of shy Laura (Carey Mulligan), who tells us she’s more grateful for Henry’s attentions that in love with him. It’s clear that she’s more attracted to ladies’ man Jamie, but she marries Henry anyway.
When Pearl Harbour is bombed in 1941, Jamie joins the air force, leaving Henry and Laura to work they farm they buy, tenanted by the Jacksons, a poor black family who have worked the land their whole lives, but can never own it. Their son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) also goes to fight the good fight, joining a tank division. Jamie deals with the trauma of war by turning to drink and prostitutes, but for Ronsel, the fight against fascism is a more transformative experience, as for the first time in his life he is treated with a modicum of dignity and respect. But when Ronsel returns home, it’s far from a hero’s welcome. The McAllan boy’s racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), don’t take kindly to Ronsel’s new found confidence, a tension that is only worsened when he and Jamie bond over their shared experiences of the war.
Through Ronsel and Jamie’s friendship, Mudbound explores the ways that racism is a system that channels insecurity and resentment, specifically that of post-war masculinity in crisis. Living a subsistence existence, Henry is a disappointment to his father and increasingly, his wife, his only power deriving from the systemic authority over the Jackson family. Meanwhile, Pappy is stuck in the past, desperately clinging on to a fraudulent sense of racial and generational superiority. His insecurity is never more obvious that in the first conversation he has with the returning Jamie as they bicker over who has killed the most men.
This crisis of masculinity is also a crisis of modernity, with Ronsel dreaming of returning to a renewed, hopeful Germany, while Jamie plans on moving out West to the hyper-modern Los Angeles. Their exposure of the small obsolescence of Pappy and Henry’s world can only be tolerated for so long – and when the repercussions come, Rees does not shy away from their brutality. Though Mudbound represent a period of injustice consigned to history, its examination of a toxic, racist masculinity stuck in the past could hardly be more relevant today.