Tim Lewis, The Guardian, October 22, 2017
In the opening scene of the new film Mudbound, two bedraggled white men are digging a hole, ominous storm clouds overhead. They are using old-fashioned shovels and it’s difficult immediately to date the action, but it becomes clear they are brothers, burying their father. When they realise the coffin will be too heavy for them to lower in, they stop a black family, passing by in a horse and trap. Only a few words are spoken, but the looks they exchange make it clear that there is history between these two families.
The ambiguity of the film’s time frame was intentional, explains Dee Rees, Mudbound’s 40-year-old director. The film is actually set in the 1940s in the Mississippi delta, but the scene could have taken place a century earlier or even, to a degree, shockingly recently. “Black people, we didn’t get the right to vote in America until 1965,” says Rees. “That’s not long ago at all! Women got the right in 1920, we got the vote in ’65. Even when I was growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, as a suburban middle-class kid in a poor white suburb, we were the only black family on the block and there were confederate flags as curtains. Growing up in the 1980s, which we think of as contemporary, I was bussed to school because a lot of the public schools in Nashville were still segregated. This was in the 80s! So our history is with us, this isn’t some far-away thing.”
Mudbound caused a stir when it was first shown at the Sundance festival in January. The story, adapted from the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, follows two families: the white McAllans, who own the land, and a black family, the Jacksons, who are sharecroppers, giving up a part of each year’s harvest for rent. Their interactions are straightforward, albeit hierarchical and bigoted, until two of them, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) are sent to fight in the second world war. Ronsel discovers that he feels more valued, more at home, in the army in Europe than he ever did in the American south. What happens when he returns to Mississippi is unflinching in its realism and brutality, as the local white nationalist community turn on him with venom, despite his service for their country.
At Sundance, there were standing ovations and five-star reviews: “timely and timeless,” read one. There was instant speculation that Mudbound had set the bar early for the 2018 awards season, in particular a revelatory Mary J Blige as Florence, matriarch of the Jacksons, alongside Carey Mulligan as Laura McAllan and Rees for her adapted screenplay and directing. But in the days following the premiere, something strange happened: none of the major studios made a bid to distribute the film. There were murmurs that, 12 months on from Fox Searchlight spending $17.5m on The Birth of a Nation, a story based on Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion (the film’s reception was tainted by a 2001 rape case involving its director and star Nate Parker, who was acquitted at trial), there was little appetite for a period film about race.
This story, however, does at least end well. As the festival wound down, Netflix came in with an offer of $12.5m for Mudbound. It was more than they needed to pay, they knew that, but Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer, felt the film had a universality and epic scale other distributors had missed. And it is starting to look like a smart bet. If Mudbound does make the Oscar shortlist, it will be a first for the streaming service giant. And were Rees to be nominated, she would be only the fifth woman in the history of the awards to make the shortlist for best director, and the first black woman. In the New York Times critic AO Scott credited her with rejuvenating “an old Hollywood tradition of ethically rigorous, dramatically vigorous movie-making. Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan would recognise her as a kindred spirit.”