The lion’s share of films about racism tend to denature race’s own construction, neutralizing its existence in time and space as a material-but-conceptual reality that is institutional and structural in nature. They miss that racism is assembled, modeled, fashioned, and implemented rather than simply felt or present as an assumption. But even films aware that race is constructed often neutralize its instability by fleeing from its paradoxes: that race is arbitrary yet all-encompassing, fragile yet galvanized, collapse-able and implacable in one. These films empty race out of its peculiar qualities, favoring one of two constructions that overlook the dialectical rather than dichotomized nature of race as material and ideological in one. In the first construction, they may consider race as a simple accident that recuses the film from having to critique democracy wholesale. They consider the material presence of racism not as a symptom of a democratic syndrome that begets race but as an addendum, alternate, or holdover that democratic theory has not successfully stamped out, not for want of trying. Racism becomes a rogue insurgent in democracy and America rather than a foundational element. Alternately, films may define race as a more immanent problem for America, but only as husk of abstraction, a foundational accident in American democratic theory but one which plays out purely at a theoretical rather than material level. Thereby, these films do not have to expose and express the way race is reified in practice. They dare only to understand democracy as a concept, not as a material and temporal process.
I begin this way to highlight Mudbound’s primary success, which I occasionally regret to suggest is more conceptual than experiential or cinematic: it understands race as neither and both material nor/and ideological, that the material contingencies of race and class and the ideological processes of racism and classism are deeply embedded in one another and arguably inseparable from one another. Its polychromatic and multipartite narrative threads the practice and performance of social interaction and freights them both with the rhetoric of ideology. Thus, race, in writer-director Dee Rees’ film, takes too many forms to count. While white farmer Henry McAllan is the child of an almost cartoonishly racist father, the most telling moment in the film doesn’t feature him. When he arrives at his newly-purchased plot of land, he knocks on the door of his black tenant farmer with what initially appears a gentle hello, only to invite the man to help him move in with a gesture half-way between ask and tell.
It is immediately apparent that the single, nefarious incident of swindling that befalls Henry (Jason Clarke) and forces him to move into a dislocated farm with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their children, as well as Henry’s father (Jonathan Banks), is a strangling, all-encompassing, resting state for that African-American tenant farmer Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J Blige) and their children. Compared to Henry’s family, their hardship is not misfortune, prey to precipitous moments of difficulty or happenstance. It’s a de facto reality, the lowered ground upon which they stand rather than a pockmark that merely destabilizes that ground.
But when Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from WWII and find that the experience has, in both cases, alienated them from the Delta region of Mississippi where they live, the mud beneath both of them unsettles until nearly every one around them is roped in. Jamie’s disruption is mostly individual, a sense of personal malaise rooted in returning to America and a case of undiagnosed PTSD. But Ronsel’s dilemma is more pointed still. When the war ends, while his white co-combatants cheer, Ronsel looks on in disbelief, well aware that he is on his way back to his own more persistent, more elusive, more totalizing, and in some ways more violent form of combat back home. Eventually though, their camaraderie tests the often unstated and frequently stated boundaries of space and place that coat the world around them, clotting it with hatred that bleeds into even the deepest trenches of mud.
Content-wise, Mudbound is a genuine find, aware of and trained on the intricacies of implicit, institutional racism that not only exposes racial hatred but, more importantly, racial ownership in the form of Henry’s relationship with the Jackson family. They work Henry’s land in the sense that Henry purchased it from the previous owners who the Jacksons’ tenated for, but in spite of Hap’s insistence that he works for himself, the boundaries of their contractual agreement are putty in Henry’s hands. Enforced by a system of subjugation he doesn’t have to acknowledge, possibly even recognize, any favor he asks of the Jacksons must be attended to, since any disagreement or refusal on their part is tantamount to racial heresy and grounds for more corporeal action on any white person’s part. White entitlement to black bodies is a more insidious and perhaps more pernicious threat than hatred. When Laura asks Florence to nurse her children back to health from a potentially fatal encounter with whooping cough, Florence is well aware that any other desires she has must be put on hold: her disinclination to help, not to mention any potential failure to succeed even if she does help, would be grounds for her death.
Mudbound lingers in moments like these, even when the screenplay sometimes makes them linger for the wrong reasons. Namely, when it can’t quite draw attention to them without a frequent intrusion from one of six inner-portraits from the central characters. These monologues sometimes lilt and sway and freight the images with an added weight that sometimes has the effect of floating poetically above the mud. But, at other times, they do nothing beyond literalize the drama, sapping it of any added implication and actually reducing its capacity to ignite beyond these particular situations, turning it into a series of events and verbal explanations of those events rather than a more evocative tapestry with implications beyond these individual moments. Where any image can radiate in multiple, fascinatingly unclarified and unsettled directions, some of the narrations exist merely for the story rather than to expand it. They over-explain occurrences to the point where exploring the events is more important than daring to explore what implications they pose for America more widely. The monologues also often deny the world around the characters itself some of its primordial potency, sapping some physicality from the location, denying the drama the sense in which hatred, anger, and terror can effuse through the cracks in the ground and the pores in the mud. Through the images themselves, in other words.
Images which, incidentally, the film can be inattentive to in the moments where sometimes chintzy cinematography conveys a more plastic – ie fake – vibe than the sort of hard-won realism the film aspires to. Think how Coen Brothers, or cinematographer Roger Deakins, invented this kind of aesthetic for O Brother Where Art Thou, a similarly Depression-era Southern tale, but one whose comic, quasi-mythological, stagebound bonafides were better suited to the artifice of the images than this down-in-the-delta blues. My point isn’t so much that it looks fake as that nothing in the material corroborates or cosigns this artifice. The script is modernism: an interplay of tones and moods, a spectrum of cultures and considerations, all questioning the centrality of any one perspective or argument but not necessarily disarticulating the possibility of connection to reality. What it isn’t is post-modern, a dunk into a tank of irreconcilability and impossibility where everything we see is essentially fallacious and false from the first minute. Because of this, the style seems less like a conscious project than an oversight at best and a saboteur at worst. The film just doesn’t feel very mudbound.
At the same time, the rampant monologues do themselves suggest another avenue for the film beyond mere obviousness, one more novelistic and literary and elementally allegorical than purely realistic. Which is to say: while the film is replete with monologues, it is a manifestly dialogic construction. In this mode, the half-dozen perspectives of the screenplay, and the film’s crucial decision not to move linearly from character to character but to switch to and fro and back again between them, inspires a constantly-renegotiating tale where multiple events, and multiple characters, are experienced itinerantly from alternate voices and visions. Voices and visions which, crucially, do not so much contradict each other as binaries but provide subtle reorientations in perspectives rooted less in what each character knows than in what they are interested in and what truths their race, class, and gender allows them to choose to overlook at various moments. The narrative transience is strangely paradoxical, both novelistic and intimate, quiet and boldface, such that the strange and often bedeviling fit between poetic dialogue and harsh realism lends to the film an arrhythmic quality of ever-shifting feelings and allegiances that never exactly cohere. Yet the latter statement – the film pulling itself apart from the edges, reshaping itself, breaking down its own sense of self – feels like not like a flaw proper but a necessary statement of humility on the film’s part, a purposeful and self-aware reminder of the film’s limits. The screenplay routinely defeats once-assumed guarantees about character perspective and orientation. The subjectivities of race, class, and gender become inextricably modernistic realities contingent to perspective and confounded by context. Even more tellingly, the chintziness of the images – in this framework – actually accrue an allegorical construction, not a reflection of any lived reality but a literary refraction of lived experience with a self-consciously artificial look that reverberates almost Biblically, as a mythological tale of racial strife. I’m not sure I’d go that far, or that the film entirely earns this argument (to my mind, the only way to really claim that the film is a masterpiece), but it at least gestures toward this interpretation.
It’s an imperfect beast, then. But the question to ask isn’t what could have made it perfect but how the film manifests its imperfections. Is it proud of them, clinging to them and exposing them as ways of nuancing a narrative and questioning its own limits? Does it mobilize its mess as a statement that a cleaner narrative would have been either incomplete or reductive, or that central truths are difficult to come by here? Or, alternately, does it try to hide its imperfections underneath a thick coating of exposition and voiceover that both trivializes and literalizes the drama by saturating its sprawl with too-pat verbal clarifications? For me, the question is still unresolved, inevitably producing a film that is at once deeply knotted with fulfilled commitments to dissecting race, class, and to a lesser extent gender and, on the other hand, wounded by its unfinished promises and somewhat comatose inclinations to prestige-drama importance. It’s loaded with words that vacillate between bearing characters’ souls and, alternately, simply ornamenting or demonstrating things we have already seen, visually, without the words themselves exorcising any new demons or exemplifying any added interiority. Still, it’s definitely an important watch, and frequently a provocative reading of simultaneously hidebound-and-transient Southern community in a highly Faulknerian mode. Even though Faulkner never had to decide whether to digitally color correct his books.