Mary J. Blige and other standouts bring America’s ugly truth to life in “Mudbound”

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Netflix began streaming historical drama “Mudbound” Nov. 17, 2017. The film portrays the difficult truths of one black and one white family working different sides of a Mississippi farm. The movie stars Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan and Garrett Hedlund.

“Mudbound” the story

The movie “Mudbound” is based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan. The novel was published in 2008 and won a number of awards. Among the work’s accolades are the Bellwether Prize for fiction. The Bellwether Prize was founded by writer Barbra Kingsolver. It seeks to award socially conscious fiction. Other awards for the novel include a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and a Borders’ Original Voices Selection.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with speculative elements. The plot revolves around a cast of characters who are struggling to make a life farming in the Mississippi Delta. In the backdrop, are Jim Crow laws and misogyny, both of which play a role in the development of the plot.

“Mudbound” the movie

“Mudbound” is essentially a tale of two families. One black and one white. The white family involves the relatively newlywed Henry and Laura McAllan. Henry moves his wife from a comfortable life in Memphis, Tennessee to a hard scrabble existence on a Mississippi farm. They own the land where the Jacksons, a black family,  live and work as sharecroppers. The head of the Jackson family are Hap and Florence Jackson. Their oldest son fights in World War II. Henry’s brother Jamie is also an integral part of the story.

Joining the McAllan clan is Pappy McCallan. A racist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. In his old age, Pappy depends on Henry to take care of him. Pappy also depends on Jim Crow laws to offer him and his cronies a sense of supremacy.

The engaging thing about “Mudbound” is that none of the characters are entirely neutral in regard to systemic racism. They are either ardently against it, or they embrace it totally. Henry comes close to neutrality. But mostly, it seems he just wants to make his father happy. Except his father is a miserable person, and only unpleasant things please him. Laura reminds Henry of her importance in his life, and refuses to allow Pappy to bully them on a specific point. The moment is one of Laura’s best.

Things come to a head when Pappy finds proof that Ronsel Jackson fathered a child while in Germany. Pappy and his Klan comrades take Ronsel to task with a rope and a knife. They force Jamie to choose which of his friend’s body parts will be cut off. In the process, Pappy berates Jamie for not being able to kill a man that he has to look in the eye. Jamie was a bomber pilot.

Pappy’s behavior force Jamie’s hand, which lends credence to the end of the movie. Also, each character is allowed to do his or her own voice over. This makes all the plot points feel like truth, not exploitative moments thrown in just because.

Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan

Soulful music diva Mary J. Blige plays the unglamorous, but wholly engaging, humble and strong, Florence Jackson. Without her trademark blonde hair and contemporary makeup, Blige is still recognizable. She sets about her tasks with steely determination, yet is loving and gracious to her family despite social standards that bear down on them. Her children still dream, and she and her husband support them. In short, they are a real family, with distinct personalities. They do not exist as one suffering lump as in some movies.

Jason Mitchell might be less recognizable. He played the late rapper Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton.” Mitchell brings an affability and strength to the role of Ronsel. He is believable as the reluctant friend of Jamie, and audiences cheer for him when he stands up to Pappy and two friends when they confront him at a general store. Ronsel points out that he went to Germany and fought so they could remain safe. The implication being even after proving himself in war, his humanity is still suspect. The older white men are silenced in that moment.

Carey Mulligan is probably best known for her role as Daisy Buchanan in the latest version of “The Great Gatsby” to hit the big screen. Her Laura McAllan is thoughtful, determined, yet somehow fragile. She knows when to speak up; she knows when a stand has to be made. This is important in an era when women were still relatively voiceless.

“Mudbound” succeeds in pointing out how the stereotypes that forge racism in America are no match for the dreams and determination of individuals who are the targets of hatred. This is the movie’s persist truth that still resonates today.

With a stellar cast and engaging storyline, “Mudbound” tells a difficult story that all Americans need to hear.

 

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