Sunday, December 31, 2017

Blood In The Toil, Blood In The Soil

Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson and Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson in "Mudbound", the excellent drama directed by Dee Rees. 

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Mudbound" is a brilliant, highly accomplished drama by Dee Rees.  Based on Hillary Jordan's novel and adapted by Ms. Rees and Virgil Williams, "Mudbound", told using multiple character narratives, is a great archaeology of Black America's blood, sweat and tears and how they are insignia in a soil that a white Mississippi family led by the gruff, truculent Henry McAllan (Jason Collins) trample all over.  Henry's younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), an eager, charismatic fighter pilot in World War Two, doesn't quite fit into the racist hierarchy of the McAllan clan. 

Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), also away on World War Two duty in the 1940s, is a member of the family led by his parents Hap (Rob Morgan), a farmer, and care worker Florence (Mary J. Blige), part of countless generations of Blacks who have toiled for free on land that is essentially theirs by sheer virtue of their unceasing and brutal travails under fire.

"Yet this place, this law, said you need a deed, not deeds," Hap narrates early on.  This is one of many great lines in Ms. Rees' film.  It rings truest to the African-American experience, especially in the Southern U.S.  Everyone in "Mudbound" is striving to earn their passport, family standing, citizenry and stake in the tenuous American Dream.  The film charts how freedom is fragile at home and how the artifacts needed or garnered to strive toward a foothold to freedom are often denied or ignored.  The McAllans face pressure after their deed to a house, or rather, an agreement, isn't recognized.  An unscrupulous owner has sold the house.  Literally everyone in "Mudbound" is fighting to land on stable land.  "You can't push me out," one white woman says.

"Mudbound" is about encroachment or downright invasion in matters personal and otherwise, and the film's evocative tone provides consistently alternating warm and jarring moods for these events of upheaval and havoc.  A blissful loving relationship can be smashed up against a wronged woman who finds out her spouse cheated.  Systems of violence, in war overseas and in war on American soil, contrast.  Rachel Morrison's excellent cinematography strikingly exhibits jagged edges of casual violence as a way of white Southern life. 

The system of white supremacy and its many facets of violence mandates that the Jacksons sacrifice their own very existence, in a cruel, coercive self-erasure, to keep the McAllans alive.  This enforced erasure is the very rudiment of enslavement and propping up of white families on the backs of Black families.  The sacrifice is tantamount to a re-enslavement imposed by fiat by the McAllans.  "I won't be working for them.  I'll be working for us," Florence says, more hopefully than with certainty.

Dee Rees directs "Mudbound" with intrepid and committed purpose to speaking deep truths, alternating between Black family struggle, nobility and independence and humiliating dedication to de facto white enslavement masters and white family carefree whims, racists and gradated white privilege.  Ms. Rees also stratifies her film with gendered situations.  For the women of "Mudbound" loyalty is the arena of drama.  Those women, including Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) are often trapped by men or by circumstances.  For the men of "Mudbound" the arena of drama is manhood and how manhood is constantly and aggressively challenged.

What is so thoroughly arresting about "Mudbound" are the sheer multiple number of systems at work throughout the film.  Hap Jackson and his family experience the system of white supremacy that plagues America and every Black person (and infects the whites participating) in it.  The Jacksons aren't living for themselves.  They are surviving albeit reluctantly for the express preservation of the McAllans.  The striking clash of systems are confining, arguably more so for the McAllans, who with their life of unearned privilege constantly simmer with tension and anger.  The Jacksons are a solid, cohesive and tight-knit family yet have an economic grounding as valuable as quicksand.  The deeper they toil in the soil the faster any rightful stake they may have to it evaporates.

I loved how Ms. Rees allows this largely pastoral atmosphere to settle, breathe and percolate, while the thickness of violence -- the physical violence, emotional violence and the violence caused by the violation of rightful expectation -- pollutes it, acting as a stubborn pushback against such beautiful, natural settings.  That these two juggernauts of environment and human toxicity co-exist feels like a lie or a cruel joke.  The clue is in the film's title: somewhere this clash of nature and humankind will be resolved in nature's soil, helplessly or inevitably.

Mary J. Blige as Florence Jackson in Dee Rees's excellent drama "Mudbound".  Netflix

"Mudbound" is rich with many elements that bind people together, split them or put them at polar opposites.  There are fragile architectures and fertile architectures of human life.  Both of these structures duel uneasily throughout a two-plus hour excavation of people's hearts.  Will these people live or perish?  The Jackson family wears the plight of ancestors on their faces in one sorrowful expression after another.  Their eyes scream at us and at clueless or selfish tormentors.  The isolation of pain, white oppressors and the bitter, brutal sting of racism is palpable, seared into the Southern tapestry and many images in "Mudbound" are heartbeats of psychological or physical cruelty. 

Ms. Morrison's cinematography captures the texture of this pulsating theater and melancholy so well.  Some scenes look shot in ambient light.  There's a reason for it and it all works perfectly.  Ms. Morrison's bold choices represent matter-of-fact entrenchment.  Her stylistic decisions define the realism of the forces that engulf the McAllans and the Jacksons.  Ms. Rees's pacing affords us the time and space to contemplate what the Jacksons feel and understand to be obvious and grotesque violations of their personhood, autonomy and humanity. 

One superb shot by Ms. Morrison of Florence (the excellent Ms. Blige) reflected in a car's passenger window says it all.  And one scene where physical ailments define an entire scene of silence encapsulate a humiliation.  The camera is unblinking.  "Mudbound" lets its principals speak unapologetically, whether silently or in crude stereo.  The threads and intersections of what has been at least an hour of prologue and table-setting are sharply etched into focus.  And triangulation and separation amongst people constantly punctuates the heart of "Mudbound".

Ronsel, who for some reason reminds me a little of Sammy Davis Jr. with his hat cocked sideways, is played so well by Mr. Mitchell.  Ronsel is the fulcrum of the sexual tension between two white women toward him.  He has lived a life in a war-torn place where relations between some racial groups is apparent tranquil.  Ronsel returns to America and, in one of the very best scenes in "Mudbound" is caught in a mild flirtation volley between two white women who politely engage him.  The scene shouts both ironically and literally to Emmett Till -- especially when fleeting respect and appreciation are abruptly and rudely torpedoed.  That smashing of the most innocent (or not) interactions is the core of Ms. Rees's film.

There's so much more to say about "Mudbound", and Dee Rees' excellent filmmaking and the actors' and crew's craftmanship must be enjoyed at least twice -- and most importantly enjoyed on the big screen.  Ms. Rees established her brilliance as a filmmaker with "Pariah" and cements it with greater emphasis with an American classic that will be a landmark film for eternity.

Also with: Jonathan Banks, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kerry Cahill, Lucy Faust, Jason Kirkpatrick, Henry Frost.

"Mudbound" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for some distrubing violence, brief language and nudity.  The film's running time is two hours and 14 minutes.

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