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8th December
written by Mad Cow

Rated R for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity

Mad Cow’s Rating: three cowbells

This marvelous film is a trope, or common theme, a part of American history albeit not literally “based on a true story.” It marks the heritage or really the baggage of the American people. Bought by Netflix and both streamed and opened in theatres in the same week, the film received a standing ovation at the Sundance film festival

Written by Virgil Williams (Criminal Minds, ER ) and Dee Rees(Bessie, Pariah), and directed by Rees, the plot revolves around two families, one white and one Black, and their respective sons who have just returned to Mississippi from World War II. Both men, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) suffer from PTSD, which wasn’t a thing at the time. They bond much to the chagrin of their families, with the possible exception of Jamie’s sister-in-law Laura (Carey Mulligan, Collateral, An Education) and Ronsel’s mother Florence (Mary J. Blige). And as we can guess, the locals wouldn’t take well to their friendship, so they have to hide it. Blacks (aka “negroes”) ride in the back of the truck, not next to the driver in the front seat.

Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell

The family contrasts are remarkable and the personalities of the characters give the movie the depth that makes it worth watching.  The Jacksons, sharecroppers, are a happy family, neither the racist simplistic image of the happy slaves nor the image of the embittered downtrodden. When either Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) or Florence says yes to Henry, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful decision, sometimes based on kindness, other times rationality. Hap, both farmer and pastor, is less sympathetic to the McAllan clan but does what he has to do. When he breaks his leg and Henry expects him somehow to work anyway, what has been implicit become explicit. For the most part, they must “help” the white folks.

Mary J. Blige and Carrie Mullligan

The McAllans on the other hand are miserable, clinging to a false sense of superiority, quick to feel humiliation and quick to any means to alleviate it. Laura married Henry McAllan (Jason Clark, Zero Dark Thirty, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) lest she become an old maid. She finds out too late that her husband has always wanted to have a farm, and they move suddenly to muddy Mississippi where Henry has been duped into thinking he bought a decent house, leading them to a place that’s hardly a house at all. They live with Pappy (Jonathan Banks, Better Call Saul), the most miserable of them all. Banks makes a good Southern villain and Milligan is wonderful as a woman who submits to her fate while she does what she can to retain some semblance of herself. In these miserable surroundings, physical as well as emotional, we can almost feel the mud between our own fingernails. Finally, all hell breaks loose when news of Ronsel’s life in Germany comes to light.

Jason Mitchel is perfectly cast as Ronsel. He is short and not a knock-out, good looking in an ordinary kind of way.  That he does not look like Sidney Portier or Denzel Washington is terrific. He is simply a good man. Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan are excellent as well, wordlessly conveying their ambivalence toward the McAllans.

Rob Morgan   

Were it not for the outstanding direction, performances and cinematography, this would be an old story of “racism in the South.” The plot is predictable from the moment we ascertain the personalities of the characters. There are no real surprises except when and how the inevitable climax will emerge. The ending is somewhat unreal but satisfying. It’s good to see a story like this done and it has to be done over and over – for new generations. Dee Rees shepherded the movie to its release.

Dee Rees

In an interview for Variety, Rees said that her department heads for “Mudbound” were mostly women, including director of photography Rachel Morrison, composer Tamar-kali, editor Mako Kamitsuna, sound engineer Pud Cusack and makeup artist Angie Wells. “’Two black women, a Japanese woman, a white woman who is a lesbian,’ Rees says. ’Everybody is an other. I loved the idea that we brought our so-called otherness to the film. That’s what makes it edgy.’” With any luck, this will be what the future of Hollywood looks like.

Nevertheless we are desperately in need of the untold stories. Movies like Mudbound should not stand as the only thing we have with the label African American history, something in the past, something that happened “then” and wasn’t it awful? Hollywood has to open up a bit. There are many untold stories.

Redlining in the suburbs with the full participation of the federal government occurred under the GI Bill and that story begs to be told. Whites got to buy housing in the new suburbs after World War II and the ownership of this real estate helped them to accrue wealth, an opportunity not open to Black families. It’s ironic that when purchasing a home became easier for Black people, the corruption of the banking industry left many of them bereft in the crash of 2008. Someone needs to make a film about that too.

A movie should be made about the Jackson State Mississippi campus shooting that occurred 10 days after the one at Kent State. And the campus killings at South Carolina State that happened two years before Kent state When Black students protest, the response is greater but the publicity almost non-existing.

A riveting movie can be made about the Black Wall Street Massacre in 1921 in Greenwood, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa, where assaults by white mobs and police wiped out an entire town, killing up to 300 people and leaving thousands homeless. The “impetus” was the rumor about one Black man messing with a white woman in an elevator, instead of the incredible resentment and envy that must have built up among white people in the face of enormous prosperity and wealth in that Black community.

Other themes can revolve around unlawful practices that occur today, such as charging Black people more for luxury items and services, discrimination in hiring and promotions, unfair policing. To be fair, some movies have highlighted various “micro-aggressions” that occur every day, such as remarks to Black people about how “articulate” they are, or even that certain persons are not like “the others.” Get Out was one of them, with a twist.

Dee Rees could, and would probably like to, make one or several movies on these themes. She directed the award-winning Pariah, about a Black teen’s coming out as a lesbian. She was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for Pariah. Pariah, of course, was an “art” film, an indie that unfortunately didn’t make it into the mass market. Dees did a great job with award-winning Mudbound, but the theme of this film has got to stop being the only theme allowed to move forward.

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