Dee Rees’s period drama Mudbound, which is now available to watch on Netflix, opens with a scene that sets the tone for everything that follows. In the Mississippi Delta during the mid-1940s, two white brothers struggle to dig a plot on the family farm where they can bury their father’s corpse. Excavating the earth, they uncover the skull of someone who’d been buried in this location some time before. The skeleton belongs to a former slave, one of the brothers declares, because it contains a bullet hole in the skull—the person must have been shot while trying to run away. The men debate whether to bury their father in a slave’s grave; the father, a racist, would have resented knowing that he would be interred where a black body had lain. But a violent storm is brewing and the men don’t have time to dig another plot, and so they bury him there regardless, requesting the help of a black neighbor to help lower his body into the ground.
Rees’s theme is clear: America’s history of slavery is never far from the surface of modern life. We may debate it, even try to work around it, but that history persists, affecting how we navigate our actions in the present. Mudbound is about more than American race relations; the film also considers the plight of southern farmers, both black and white, during World War II and how women helped maintain order on the farms. Yet the subjects of race and racially motivated violence enter into many of the scenes—the characters are defined first and foremost by their race, and the segregated social order determines how they interact with each other. It’s a sad movie about people who are (for the most part) unable to escape the force of social codes.
After the opening scene, Mudbound flashes back to 1939, when Laura (the wife of one of the brothers) is first being courted by the man who’ll become her husband. Laura (played sensitively by Carey Mulligan) narrates these passages, describing her conflicted feelings about Henry (Jason Clarke). She admits that she never loved him exactly, but rather felt a sense of gratitude for his affection and company. Laura realizes that if she didn’t accept his marriage proposal, she would likely die a spinster, and so she throws herself into marriage (and later motherhood) with unwavering devotion. After Henry decides to settle on the family farm, Laura learns the practical matters of farm life, overseeing the maintenance of the home while raising two small daughters. She finds satisfaction in her children, but her life is full of struggle—her daily existence is no less demanding than her husband’s.
Henry’s dandyish brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) seems a better fit for Laura; they share a love of literature and a certain self-awareness about the social traditions they’ve been born into. Yet these two characters don’t act on their mutual attraction, allowing Henry and his domineering father (Jonathan Banks) to determine the course of their lives. Laura’s fate is, to a great extent, predetermined by expectations for women in rural society; in this regard, her life is somewhat similar to that of the black family, the Jacksons, who work as tenant farmers on Henry’s family’s land. The Jacksons live in debt, which limits their social mobility, and they toil day and night. In town, they’re treated as second-class citizens, bullied by the whites in their community and often told to mind their place.
When the United Sates enters into World War II, both Jamie and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the Jacksons’ oldest son, enlist in the armed forces. Jamie becomes a fighter pilot while Ronsel becomes a tank commander. Rees and cowriter Virgil Williams (adapting a novel by Hillary Jordan) alternate between these characters’ wartime exploits as well as the plights of the characters back in Mississippi, observing parallels between all of their experiences. Life is almost as hard on the farm as it is in battle—with most grown men in town serving in the war, the remaining farmers have more work to do. At one point, the Jackson patriarch, Hap (Rob Morgan), breaks his leg and is bedridden for months; Rees shows his wife and children working the fields, trying their best to make up for Hap’s absence. If they don’t cultivate the fields in time, they may not produce a crop, which means greater debt for the family and possible starvation—life on the farm seems as much a life-or-death struggle as war.
The final hour of Mudbound follows the characters after the war ends. Ronsel, narrating the scenes of his return to Mississippi, notes that America feels unchanged to him; he still encounters racism wherever he goes, and his family remains as desperate as ever. One thing that’s different is that Jamie now looks to him as a peer—the two bond over their war experiences and become friends. The scenes depicting their burgeoning friendship are some of the best in the film, showing how simple acts of kindness can provide respite in a racist culture. Watching these moments, you feel like social barriers are being broken down. Unfortunately, Jamie and Ronsel’s friendship is not to last—the social forces that keep them apart are too strong and too violent—but it changes both characters for the better.
Mudbound is ambitious in its visual style as well as its narrative structure, with rich, dark cinematography (by Rachel Morrison) and detailed production design (by David J. Bomba) that convey the weight of history. Though it was shot in wide-screen and features plenty of landscape shots, the predominant feeling is one of confinement—the interiors are generally cramped and overstuffed, and the social codes, which determine much of the onscreen behavior, are inflexible. Mudbound plays well on a TV or laptop, but I imagine that its historical sweep would be more resonant on a big screen. Too bad Netflix didn’t show it here outside of a single screening at the Chicago International Film Festival (it did play for a week in Barrington last month); the film deserves to be presented in a format worthy of its ambitions.