In his novel, Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner writes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Born and raised in Mississippi in the twentieth century, Faulkner knew a thing or two about how the past reverberates. Mudbound, adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, is set in Faulkner’s Mississippi and is an exploration of how the past, present, and future exist simultaneously in our living memory.
Mudbound opens with two white men digging a grave. We learn, via voiceover, that the two men are brothers – Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) – and that they are fighting against time to bury their father before the arrival of a storm of Biblical proportions. Henry soon realises that their digging has unearthed a slave’s grave. “I ain’t burying my father in no slave’s grave,” he says to Jamie, “Nothing he would have hated more.” But the men don’t have a choice: the storm is about to arrive. After the storm passes, a small family funeral takes place. The brothers are joined by Henry’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their two small daughters. When the men attempt to lower the coffin into the grave, they realise that they need another set of hands. Seeing a horse and cart driving down the road, Henry runs over and addresses its driver, an African American man, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan). The tension between the white McAllans in the mud and the black Jacksons in the cart could be cut with a knife. There is history between these two families and the narrative moves back in time to tell the story of how these people have come to be where they are in the present.
Although the film’s narrative sometimes moves away from the States to show the war in Europe, director Dee Rees chooses to set the majority of Mudbound on the same piece of land, closed off from the rest of the world. Henry decides to move his young family to a farm in rural Mississippi, along with his father, the proud racist known as Pappy (Jonathan Banks). The Jacksons are tenant farmers: they work a small portion of the McAllans’s land where their ancestors worked –“broke, tilled, thawed, planted, plucked, raised, barred, broke again”– as slaves. It’s even a possibility that the slave’s grave Henry and Jamie dig up could have been that of Hap’s grandfather. The film is set during WWII, but this land is frozen in time: we see shots of workers toiling in the fields that wouldn’t be out of place in a nineteenth-century period piece.
Dee Rees and cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, present an authentic portrait of a hard, cruel, and brutal life in the rural South. There are shots of dead animals alongside gaunt, hungry children. And everywhere there is mud: outside and inside the houses, on the characters’ clothes, faces, and hands. “I dreamed in brown,” says Laura. You can almost feel it gathering under your fingernails. New mother Laura is continually worn down by her husband’s decision to move them from the city to the farm, and Florence (a standout performance from an unrecognisable Mary J. Blige), Hap’s wife and the matriarch of the Jacksons, often provides a parallel experience. Silent and intelligent, with dark sunglasses that hide her emotions, Florence is the pillar of her family. She begins to work as Laura’s help in order to earn extra money, looking after the McAllan children and sacrificing time with her own family, mirroring the way in which her enslaved mother and grandmother were forced to give their energy, milk, and time to raise white women’s children. The only place that escapes the mud is the Jacksons’s home, shot in warm, muted yellow light.
Mudbound is an exploration of trauma, as lived experience and as inheritance. Hap and Florence’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie McAllan enlist in World War II as a tank commander and bomber pilot, respectively. When the war finishes the men return to their hometown to find that nothing has changed in their racist society. Buses and water fountains are still segregated and Ronsel is expected to fall back into place. When he attempts to exit a store by the front door, he is reprimanded by Pappy McAllan: “I don’t know what they let you do over there, but you’re in Mississippi now, nigger. You use the back door.” Ronsel and Jamie struggle to assimilate back into their old lives in the States. Both men suffer from PTSD and alcohol addiction, and bond through their wartime experiences. “Do you ever miss it?” Jamie asks Ronsel. “Yes,” answers Ronsel, remembering a time when he was judged on ability and skill rather than the colour of his skin.
Set during the Jim Crowe era, Mudbound is on the cusp of social change. While Hap dreams of one day owning this land, his daughter Lilly May (Kennedy Derosin) is determined to be the first Black stenographer. Later we see the children play-acting as Black Panthers: “Bang,” says Lilly May pointing a branch like a gun at passing white men, “you dead.” Hap and Florence have survived in the predominantly white village through performative submissiveness, but their children are full of the intense rage that will soon explode into the American civil rights movement.
Mudbound resembles an old-fashioned epic, sprawling, as it is, in time and place with a large ensemble cast. While it occasionally threatens to get away from itself with its numerous subplots, Dee Rees’s controlled direction gives Mudbound a focused narrative trajectory. The heart of the film is this piece of muddy land: a place that has been nurtured with love and care to provide food and livelihoods, and yet is also a site of hatred, brutality, and violence. Dee Rees uses these contradictions to show us how empathy and cruelty are two ends of the same pole. Mudbound is a hard, uncomfortable and poetic film about the survival of people.