“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.
The female-helmed drama about two families – one white, the other black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, embodies the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and script adapted from debut novelist Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).
It is also extremely well-timed – following in the wake of #OscarSoWhite, and featuring during a spell when the industry is under scrutiny for its systemic sexism.
One snag – Mudbound is distributed by the inexperienced awards player Netflix, and voters apparently remain sniffy about a streaming service project that shuns traditional theatrical runs.
There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, and really warning voters that the movie should not be overlooked.
For me, Mudbound’s Netflix berth (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) meant I actually got to see it – while I can’t compare it to its competition, as Oscar movies tend to reach UK screens after awards season. It’s also a very long slog (2 hours 15 min), distinguishing it from Jordan’s gripping historical page-turner.
Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the novel unfolds when decent-ish (it’s relative), dull and stubborn Henry McAllan drags his prim wife Laura and their small children to a dilapidated shack/farm in the Mississippi Delta, which Laura resentfully names “Mudbound”.
Their lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson, with the latter keeping house for the McAllans. Their voices are joined by Henry’s younger brother Jamie, and the Jackson’s eldest son Ronsel, who both return from WWII Europe.
The friendship between the two veterans riles the local racists, including the vile McAllan patriarch, Pappy. The film, like the novel, starts with the end – Pappy’s burial. But in the book we know immediately that his death wasn’t the “natural, timely passing of an old man” – something that isn’t resolved until the final chapters.
Where Carey Mulligan’s Laura simpers, book Laura is a complex, prickly and unlikable character. After her handsome pilot/aspiring-actor brother-in-law reappears on the horizon in his aviator shades, she starts to jealously check his shirts for lipstick and perfume.
Some writers have described the movie as being focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders…”
Although writer-director Dee Rees decided to keep the novel’s strategy of switching the narration between six characters, she chooses not to rely too heavily on this voice-over exposition, and she focuses mainly on the friendship between the two men, Jamie and Ronsel.
Mary J. Blige became a best supporting actress nominee for her performance as Florence, despite doing little other than look dignified with her arms crossed. Perhaps it’s the novelty of seeing a superstar singer (she’s also nominated for original song) in an unfamiliar setting, that makes it so revelatory.
Mudbound kicks off brutally, frenetically, in the final ten minutes, and in spite of the small budget and short shoot, it does have an epic yet sparse feel, especially in the fighting flashback scenes. We also get lots of stunning farmland vistas to admire (Rachel Morrison’s cinematography Oscar nod makes her the first woman nominated in the category).
Dee Rees is nominated for adapted screenplay, alongside Virgil Williams, for turning a compulsively readable, suspenseful novel into solemn prestige.