Dee Rees never shies away from tough subjects. Her first film Pariah delved into the difficult life of a transgendered teen. And her latest film Mudbound, which premiered at Sundance on Saturday to a standing ovation, is a moving tale set in the post-WWII South where families struggled to stay afloat and racism ran rampant. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan and adapted for the screen by Criminal Minds producer Virgil Williams the film is a modern Grapes of Wrath. However, where that story focused solely on the beleaguered Joad family, this one includes the perspective of a black family going through a parallel journey.
The film centers on the McAllans and the Jacksons whose lives become intertwined when the McAllan’s arrive from the city to take over a farm they’ve just purchased. For years, the Jackson’s (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) have worked the land as tenants dutifully paying their rent and raising crops for meager wages, but in the ultimate exertion of white privilege the McAllan’s (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan) encroach on the Jackson’s with their constant demands creating a sense of unease between the families.
Unable to turn down the McAllan’s endless requests for fear of reprisal, the Jackson’s keep their heads down and push through. But when their son Ronsel (Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell) returns from the war in Germany where he has been treated as an equal, his growing friendship with Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) becomes a source of friction with Jamie’s klansman father (Jonathan Banks) causing tension between the families to escalate.
Williams’ script uses voice over to give us the inner monologues of each character giving us a sense that this film is truly an ensemble. Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan deliver deeply nuanced performances that play as much in the silences as they do when there’s dialogue. And with stunning visuals by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, seamless editing by Mako Kamitsuna, and compelling sound design by Dolby Atmos, Rees artfully immerses us in the rain soaked land of the rural south.
This film is not only beautifully executed, it also tells a story we haven’t seen before. While films about the struggling whites in rural America are in abundance we haven’t ever been given insight into the plight of the black war hero returning to a country that he fought for, but which doesn’t value him. And one would also be hard pressed to recall another film witnessing the day to day of the black sharecroppers and their complicated relationship with the whites with whom they lived side by side. With many of our stories still untold we should be grateful that Dee Rees fearlessly takes these on. There is sure to be awards buzz around this film next year so look for it in theaters soon. It will be time well spent.