Down Here Together - Mudbound
The idea of shared space is one that has always been interesting to me. The ways in which different groups of people can exist in one place, but have such different realities that they can't identify with the plight of the other. Even when those plights are profoundly similar, the look only to social norms and fail to recognize the true fabric that binds us, humanity. Imagine constantly coming into contact with people who disregard your pain in favor of their whims and think nothing or your sacrifice that facilitates their gain. When your inner life isn't recognized by those around you, it can be a maddeningly disorienting experience. And it is that experience that Dee Rees' Mudbound gets so right. Beyond the technical merit, which the movie flaunts in ample measure, there is a heart here that is so clear and pure. These characters circle one another on rails; their orbits well-defined by centuries of oppression. Rees manages to beautifully capture both the broad strokes and small contours that take shape when people fail to realize we are down here together.
Mudbound is the story of two families, the Jacksons, who are Black, and the McAllans, who are White. These families share a farm in rural Mississippi. The White family owns the farm and the Black family works on it and lives there as a tenant. The White family is made up of Laura McAllan (played by Carey Mulligan), the doting wife who goes along when her husband, Henry (played by Jason Clarke) decides to move them to the country, Henry's over-the-top racist father, Pappy (played by Jonathan Banks), Henry's 'good guy' brother (played by Garrett Hedlund) and the couple's small children.
The Black family's matriarch is Florence (played by Mary J. Blige), who is forced to earn money when her husband, Hap (played by Rob Morgan), is no longer able to work. They, like the McAllans, do the best they can to raise their children, including their adult son, Ronzell (played by Jason Mitchell), who is off fighting in WWII. The film explores the myriad ways in which these people are forced to interact to make it in the world. It is done with a personal approach, with multiple narrators giving almost poetic takes on their particular story.
The best thing about Mudbound is the unusual windows it affords its audience into the condition of the Jackson family. Of course, when you encounter the sort of overt racism Pappy hands out, you are upset. But what about when all you want is to watch your mother eat a chocolate bar because you know how hard she works and how much those sorts of small luxuries can mean? What about the rightful pang of selfishness at the idea that you always have to care for children that are not your own even in a world that does not care about your children? That Black people have suffered injustices is obvious. But what can be less obvious is the depths those injustices can reach. They can truly change who you are, the fabric of your family and the generations that come after you. There is a certain dehumanization that results from the silent acceptance that you are less than someone else. Rees works comfortably in this space, telling a story that in its best moments can only be described as a revelation.
In the film's third act, it loses some of its discipline and delves into the melodramatic in a way that cheapens the overall effect. If the first two thirds are a world class seminar, the final third is an argument made with a bull horn. And while some of that is the fault of the source material, it was hard not to walk away feeling like I had seen something just short of a masterpiece. I don't know if it is fair to say that only a Black woman could have told this story, but I am oh so glad one did. There is a certain agency and empowerment imbued in every well-crafted frame. She has never lived this story, but it is hers all the same. Even if it is not necessarily your own, it is hard to imagine it won't bring you one step closer to understanding.
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