Mudbound – historical page-turner becomes solemn NETFLIX prestige

“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, seems to embody the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and script adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).

It is also extremely well-timed; it follows in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, and appears during a season 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 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.

Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the story unfolds when stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drags his prim wife Laura (a simpering Carey Mulligan) and their small children to a dilapidated shack/farm in the Mississippi Delta, where the frequent rains leave them stranded in acres of mud.

The lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keeps house for the McAllans. Their voices are joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who are both returning from WWII Europe.

The veterans form a bond that riles racist McAllan patriarch Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law (although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she doesn’t jealously check his shirts for lipstick, or take her frustrations out on Florence).

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…”

This is an interesting projection, as writer-director Dee Rees focuses primarily on the friendship between two men, with Hedlund’s Jamie portrayed as more heroic and enlightened than his book counterpart.

So much of Jordan’s historical page-turner has been cut (including a drunken Jamie’s comic encounter with a hapless cow) that I can’t work out why the movie is still a two hour-plus slog.

With a small budget and short shoot, it has a sparse yet epic feel, especially in the flashback scenes, and we get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography (the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category).

Blige got a best supporting actress nod for doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed, while Dee Rees earned an adapted screenplay nomination for turning a compulsively readable historical suspense into solemn prestige.

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