In Mudbound‘s opening scene, two white brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund) dig their father’s grave while a storm thunders towards them. But when he uncovers the remains of a runaway slave, Henry insists they move, refusing to bury his Klansman father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) in a slave’s grave. The film cuts to Henry asking/demanding the Jacksons, the black tenants who farm the land owned by Henry, to stop what they are doing and help bury a man who hated them. All this comes accompanied by Jamie’s voice over, which calls his brother, “Absolutely certain whatever he wanted to happen would.”
In these first few minutes, director Dee Rees refutes any suggestion that her film is about white people and black people realizing their lives are entangled together. No, Mudbound is about how white people, filled with a confidence bestowed upon them by America’s systematic racism, destroy the lives of black people.
We see this fact play out most keenly in the storyline that seems to suggest hope for peaceful coexistence. Both veterans of World War II, where exposure to death and to European social structures allows them to momentarily forget American racism, Jamie and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) become friends when they return to the farm. Thanks to the actors’ considerable charisma, interactions between the two provides some of the movies’ lightest and most enjoyable moments. When the two men sing together in a pickup truck, or swap stories of wartime love and death, the film basks in the joy of human comradery.
The luscious cinematography by Rachel Morrison has the same effect, presenting the McAllen’s boggy farm or a Belgian countryside in rich, wide shots. Rees often enhances this sumptuous imagery with voice over taken directly from Hilary Jordan’s source novel.
Such moments, and many of the WWII scenes in Europe, might seem like digressions, but they put the story into larger perspective: in light of the majesty of the land or the existential threat of war, Henry’s power moves over the Jacksons, or the white men who destroy Ronsel for his friendship with Jamie, seem so tiny and petty.
But however small their motivations, Rees portrays the white men’s actions as appropriately disastrous. From gory body horror to the weariness on the Jacksons’ faces, Mudbound understands the toll the black family pays for having the McAllens enter their lives. In his role as Jackson patriarch Hap, Rob Morgan deserves special praise here. After side performances in the Daredevil and Stranger Things series have established him as Netflix repertory player, Morgan brings an impressive level of nuance to his demanding role. In any given scene, he must simultaneously communicate to audiences Hap’s pride in his children, his need to appease the McAllen’s sense of superiority, and his individual frustration, a task Morgan elegantly achieves with just a twist of his mouth a flick of his eyes or a shift in his shoulders.
Even before the story reaches its gut-wrenching climax, Hap is a walking reminder of the pain white Americans inflict upon black Americans. It does matter not if it’s Pappy McAllen’s violent overt racism, Henry’s entitled sense of superiority, or Jamie’s willful ignorance of racial structures, the Jacksons suffer simply for existing.
Mudbound is not about two families whose shared proximity allows them to see past their differences. It’s about a black family decimated by systems of oppression that are enforced, explicitly or implicitly, by a white family.