Sam Burnham, Curator
I've been spending time watching and reading about the Mississippi Delta lately. It is a fascinating region that holds a special place for me. More on that in coming posts. The interest in the region led me to the Netflix original film Mudbound. Netflix has worked to build their own programming, including this film which was released last November. Somehow, I had never heard of it before this week.
The film uses a brilliant storytelling technique in which the perspective of the lead role rotates though the cast like a baton in a relay race. Rather than a single protagonist, viewers are brought into the consciousness of different characters. It builds in the viewer a sympathy for multiple players throughout the plot. While many in the supporting cast never rise above the role of antagonist, the lead roles draw in the viewer with flaws and virtues.
One sure way to create conflict in a story is to use white and black characters, throw in some marital discord, add the aftermath of the largest war in history, and to drop the entire project into the mud and muck of the Mississippi Delta in the 1940's. Instant chaos, but not typical chaos. Delta style chaos: slow, smooth, sweaty, and sometimes subtle chaos.
From the very first scene, the chasm between white and black is laid out for all to see. The viewer can have little idea what exactly has happened to bring about the scene but one thing can be for certain: Blacks are not considered equal to whites, not by a long shot.
This is an odd arrangement as the plot unfolds. The only things that could place the white McAllan family above the black Jackson family is the social order that held all blacks beneath all whites, and the fact that the McAllan family owned the land - the rich, fertile, rain and heat tortured land that produced a life of poverty for all. No one was getting rich on those 200 acres, especially not the Jacksons.
Mary J. Blige flawlessly portrays Florence Jackson, a mother whose every thought is for her family. Even when stepping in to serve the McAllans, her true service is to her own family. The viewer feels the dread of a mother with a son at war who then struggles to understand him as a different man after he returns home.
Garrett Hedlund's Southern accent leaves something to be desired but his acting was excellent. His Jamie McAllan befriends Jason Mitchell's Ronsel Jackson after the war. The two form a bond based on their war experiences. They may be the only two people in the entire delta who truly understand each other. Such a friendship that crosses the barrier of the social arrangement is bound to lead to all sorts of trouble. And of course, it does.
Jonathan Banks plays Pappy McAllan. His is one of those sinister characters that you cannot help but hate. An elderly widower who is constantly critical of his two sons, Hedlund's Jamie and Jason Clarke's Henry McAllan, the eldest with whom he lives. His vile and cantankerous nature creates friction between the McAllan family, particularly with Carey Mulligan's Laura, Henry's wife. He is also a constant source of undue harassment for the Jacksons.
Personally, my favorite was Rob Morgan's portrayal of Hap Jackson. Hap is a hard working man of faith - a loving husband and father. Loyal to a fault, he does what he feels he must. Bound by that same social order, he bows to service when he knows he has to. But he is also pushing his children to higher goals. He leads his church, his family, and the efforts to farm the land he's attached to. I couldn't help but empathize with him as he faced every challenge, every fall, every setback with frustration but also with the determination to push through. In essence, he's just a dad trying to provide for his family in every way possible. He's a tough man in a tough land.
The story shows the grim and dark sides of the Delta, likely the most unique region in the nation. These were some of the darkest times in that region. These were the times and the events that led us to The Blues, and therefore practically every other form of truly American music. The pain and fear that spawned an art form is on display in Mudbound. It is brilliantly written, well directed, and skillfully portrayed.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire