“He kept digging anyway, using his hands, passing the bones up to me as he unearthed them: ribs, arms, pelvis. When he got to the lower legs, there was a clink of metal. He held up a tibia and I saw the crude, rusted iron shackle encircling the bone. A broken chain dangled from it.”
“Jesus Christ,” Henry said. “This is a slave’s grave.”
—from “Mudbound,” a 2008 novel
by Hillary Jordan.
The film “Mudbound” opens with claustrophobic shots of the brothers McAllan digging a grave from the unforgiving Mississippi mud as a rain storm approaches. Their grim task is interrupted as their shovels struck skeletal remains. Realizing that they are about to bury their bigoted father Pappy (Jonathan Banks, whom we will meet later) among the segment of humanity he hated most, older brother Henry (Jason Clarke) initially calls off their project before yielding to pragmatism and asks Hap (Rob Morgan), the patriarch of the sharecropping Jackson family to assist in lowering Pappy into his final resting place in this wretched earth.
Running at 134 minutes, “Mudbound” is the story of the Jacksons and McAllans, two families coexisting in the Mississippi Delta in pre and post World War II. Slavery may be the relic of a bygone era, but its legacy and traditions remain steadfast, as the requests the McAllans extend to their tenants come off as veiled demands. While both clans reap a meager existence from this wretched landscape, a rigid caste system remains firmly in place, even as global conflict beckons beyond the horizon.
Based on the acclaimed debut novel by Hillary Jordan, the book and movie are embossed with the imprint of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and the Southern Gothic tradition. The main characters are given voiceovers to further the narration, possibly a literary carry over
The call to arms proves to level the social strata, as the younger McAllan brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) march off to Europe to engage the Nazi menace in different braches of the segregated service. Once back in Dixie, the crucible of war makes them unlikely compatriots as they bond together to heal, which may be the story’s moral center. Both are broken in distinctly different ways: ex-bomber pilot Jamie resorts to alcohol to salve off the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder; while Ronsel’s heroics as a front line tank commander still relegate him to second-class status at the back of the bus. In any case, this curious alliance will have uneasy consequences in civilian life.
The screening for this review had the additional benefit of a Q-and-A afterwards with the filmmakers, a session that underscored the impact of the recent political elections and gender-related issues connected with entertainment and the show business industry. The racial divide highlighted in storyline remains an unresolved blight on the American psyche, as actor Jason Mitchell offered a telling commentary on current events when he called Trump the first “orange” President.
Amidst the drama and scandal generated during this holiday movie session and the wind up to the awards ceremonies, “Mudbound” has quietly achieved a notable milestone in its own right. This critically acclaimed production was completed with female filmmakers in key creative positions of its creation: Director Dee Rees, Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (she also shot the upcoming “Black Panther”), Film Editor Mako Kamitsuna, and Music by Afrocentric Punk-Soul composer Tamar-kali.