As Dee Rees’ Mudbound begins it adopts the tropes of a romantic drama, as we delve into the coming together of Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and Laura (Carey Mulligan). Though making for an engaging opening act, as the narrative progresses it becomes increasingly more clear that the first hour of this movie is somewhat inconsequential, sadly emblematic of a film that addresses characters and plot-lines that we don’t need to address, devoid of any palpable focus until the latter stages, when it’s almost too late.
Henry and Laura marry, though for the latter, it’s not into a life she had anticipated, nor desired, for Henry buys a farm. It transpires that Laura is far better suited to her husband’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), though he doesn’t stick around for too long, having to leave for Europe and serve his country, in the midst of the Second World War. Back at home, the McAllan’s – which also consists of the abhorrently racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks), are sharing their land with the Jacksons, as Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) work tirelessly on the farm. Their eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), much like Jamie, heads off to Belgium to fight in the war, where he falls in love with a local. For the first time in his life Ronsel doesn’t feel judged by the colour of his skin, but as he returns race tensions are high, and while helping to defeat a fascist regime, he returns home to immense, violent prejudice.
Right from the offset there’s a foreboding atmosphere prevalent to this piece, though it simply takes too long until we reach the crux of the narrative. The sprawling opening act covers ground we do not need to be covered, without a true protagonist to shoulder the viewer’s emotional investment. Conversely, the way we move seamlessly between characters is effective, particularly in the narration, which consistently changes hands, as we adopt the perspectives of so many of those who make up this profound story. But really this story belongs to Ronsel, and this becomes apparent towards the close of play – it’s just a shame it wasn’t his story being told from the very beginning.
Though flawed in that regard, the film is a poignant, powerful endeavour that focuses in on a nation with an inherent racism problem, with something so painfully ironic about the idea that Ronsel had been serving on behalf of his country in the war, fighting against fascism – when back at home he is discriminated against for being black. It’s this theme which makes for a worthwhile production, and it’s been masterfully written by Virgil Williams, and while the narrative structure may be an issue, the dialogue is anything but, as there’s a concise, dogmatic and somewhat brutal aspect to the monologues, and yet it’s always articulate and eloquent, comparable to the way James Baldwin used to express himself, and there aren’t many compliments higher than that.