Mudbound (2017): The Inescapable Quagmire of Racism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Directed by Dee Rees and co-written with Virgil Williams
Mudbound is a drama written and directed by Dee Rees, with Virgil Williams acting as a co-writer. Based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, this film explores the relationship between two Veterans, one black and one white, returning from World War II to rural Mississippi. The narrative arcs are split four ways, two broad and two narrower. One of the main plot lines focuses on the McAllan family, a white family that buys a farm in rural Mississippi with tenant farmers, an evolution of the sharecropper in which the poorer families do not own the land they are working. The other family is the Jacksons, tenant farmers on this same farm. The subplots follow Jaime McAllan, a man who becomes a pilot, and Ronsel Jackson, who becomes a tank commander. This sets the tone of dual narratives inside dual narratives which, creatively, creates a duality that the characters themselves experience.
Rees starts the film with a grave digging followed by a burial, and the film cuts back from there. This style of direction, having one of the last scenes appear in short in the beginning of the film, causes the viewer to question how they arrive at that scene, acting as a fantastic plot hook. Throughout the film, we cut between the families when they are facing similar woes. Both Ronsel and Jaime return from the war and experience rejection, Ronsel from the city of Marietta and his landlords, and Jaime from his racist father. Conversely, the town seems to accept Jaime at first, and Ronsel’s family is thrilled to have him back. Ronsel and Jaime meet in town after a car backfires, triggering a Post Traumatic reaction from Jaime which Ronsel witnesses; Ronsel offers platitudes to console Jaime, thus starting their budding friendship. The film follows their growing friendship based on mutual respect and shared trauma all the while their families are at disparate odds. The Jacksons want to move off of the property and become landowners, escaping from this unfair and racist situation by being independent. The McCallans, specifically Henry, the Husband of the family, and Pappy, the excessively racist grandfather, constantly clash by making demands of the Jacksons’ time and services outside of the typical tenant-landlord relationship. By framing the conflict this way, Rees showcases a growing respect between unlikely friends while also documenting the growing discontent between the two families, which ultimately comes to conflict. When we finally return to the penultimate grave digging scene, we can feel a tension between the two groups of characters that was only hinted at before.
Rees masterfully crafts the relationship between Ronsel and Jaime, both of them bonding over stories of their fallen friends. At first, Ronsel is suspicious of Jaime, as in Marietta, Mississippi, it is very out of character for a white man to befriend a black man. Ronsel, however, knows he cannot be too contrary and so slowly builds up to questioning Jaime. Throughout this film the racism of the characters is explicit, and so overcoming not only an absence of racism but even a growing respect between two characters who, contemporarily, should have been unfriendly at best is a hard feat to pull off, but Rees manages to do so. You witness throughout the film a genuine friendship form, and this friendship supersedes the pressures put on the characters by the culture within which they exist.
Rees’s film evokes strong emotions and is very relevant in today’s political and cultural climate. Recently, the political divide in the country has seemingly gotten worse, and this film can be said to mimic this divide. By showing two characters overcoming this, specifically characters from opposing families in a tenant-landlord relationship based on sharecropping, Rees promotes a powerful message that we are not defined by our families or cultures. Mudbound seems to say if these two men from such diametrically opposed backgrounds can overcome hatred, maybe the rest of us can as well.
— Bo Locke
California State University, Stanislaus