In 1930s Tenessee, 31-year-old ‘spinster’ Laura (Carey Mulligan) makes a marriage of convenience to Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) – despite being more attracted to his charming brother Jamie (Garret Hedlund). When the war breaks out, Jamie enlists, while Henry announces that he will be moving Laura, their children and his elderly father (Jonathan Banks) to a farm on the Mississippi delta.
Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), one of Henry’s tenants, longs to own the land that he farms, as did his slave ancestors before him. His wife Florence (Mary J Blige) agrees to work for the McAllens, fearing what her absence might mean for her own children. Meanwhile their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) becomes a sergeant in a tank regiment, discovering that in Europe he’s seen as a liberator and a hero, not a second class citizen.
When the war ends, bringing Jamie and Ronsel home, the precarious balance of both family’s lives comes under threat.
As ugly facets of America’s past continue to erupt violently into its present, Hollywood remains reticent about the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era. 12 Years a Slave was brought to life by a British director and star, and Mudbound – despite early critical acclaim – struggled to find a distributor. It’s thanks to Netflix and the sterling work of director Dee Rees that we get to see this timely film.
Mudbound is about questions of ownership, and of neighbourliness: what belongs to who, who belongs to who. The story is characterised by the hesitant rhythms of a changing world and the textures of hardscrabble existence. Refreshingly, it’s a genuine ensemble piece, in which every character is given breathing space and a unique voice. The performances are so good across the board that it’s hard to pick a standout – Carey Mulligan is as absorbing as ever, and Jason Mitchell brings charisma and vulnerability to the role of Ronsel.
The third act of the story takes a shockingly but necessarily dark turn, and for me, the tidy coda which concludes things felt a little jarring. I’ve not read the 2008 novel on which the film is based, but I do wonder if these scenes were added for the screen, so as not to leave viewers feeling too uncomfortable. If that’s the case, it’s a shame the filmmakers felt it necessary: there are some kinds of discomfort that we ought to sit with for a while.
- Did you enjoy Mudbound, and why or why not? Which other films – if any – is it comparable to?
- Which of the ensemble cast stood out to you, and why? Why do you think the filmmakers chose to focus on multiple characters rather than a single protagonist? In your view, what did the voiceovers add to the story?
- How much did you know about this period of history before seeing the film? Why do you think there aren’t many portrayals of black soldiers (or any soldiers of colour) onscreen? Why is it important for films to portray the real, diverse face of history?
‘Went off to fight for my country, came back to find it hadn’t changed a bit.’ – Ronsel
- How does the legacy of slavery continue to shape the Jackson’s lives – and how does their experience of poverty differ from the McAllens? What barriers prevent them from bettering their circumstances? What would it take in order for them to be truly free?
- How did you feel about the friendships which developed between Laura and Florence, and Jamie and Ronsel? What makes these friendships possible, and what makes them complicated or compromised?
- In what ways are Florence and Laura each expected to put aside what they went in life? What is the significance of Florence’s struggle to keep a whole chocolate bar for herself, or of Laura’s longing to wash in private? How are women in our own society viewed when they prioritise their own wellbeing, at the perceived expense of men or of family?
- What is significant about the title of the film? How does the ‘mudbound’ landscape reflect the characters’ struggles with their own circumstances, and with the legacy of history?
‘Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?’ – Hap
- How are the issues raised by the film being played out today – in American society at large, and in your own community? How do racist attitudes and other kinds of oppression persevere, in both overt and covert ways? What hope – if any – does Mudbound offer us?