Of the handful of breakout movies from 2017 Sundance Film Festival, none looks more destined to be an Oscar nominee next year than Mudbound.
Mudbound (remember that title!) is a handsomely made, urgently relevant drama about the intertwined lives of the black Jackson and white McAllan families on a farm in 1940s Mississippi, unfolding with both a Faulkner-like lyricism and a cutting contemporary resonance. It comes from filmmaker Dee Rees, who made her debut with the acclaimed 2011 lesbian coming-of-age film Pariah and went on to direct Queen Latifah in HBO’s Emmy-winning Bessie. Mudbound's impressive ensemble cast includes Jonathan Banks, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Straight Outta Compton breakout Jason Mitchell, and a more-interesting-than-usual Garrett Hedlund.
It's one of the best films at the festival. But somehow it has yet to finalize a deal for a distributor, while lighter or more personal fare like those about an aspiring rapper (Patti Cake$), overcoming an eating disorder (To the Bone), and real-life romance (The Big Sick) were quickly snapped up from the fest for $10.5, $8, and $12 million, respectively.
Mudbound has nothing in common with Nate Parker’s 2016 The Birth of a Nation, aside from also being the awards-y work of a black director and dealing with racism through the lens of history. But it’s hard not to feel that the latter film has managed to cast a shadow over the former anyway. Parker’s Braveheart-style biopic of Nat Turner famously premiered to multiple standing ovations at Sundance last year, kicking off a giddy bidding war that ended in its sale to Fox Searchlight for a record-setting $17.5 million. The resurfacing of ugly details from Parker’s past and a subsequent PR flameout turned that release into a much-discussed disaster.
It seems extremely unlikely that Rees's past is going to yield any Parker-style revelations, but the contrast between the scramble following the premiere of The Birth of a Nation and the slower bidding pace for Mudbound is pronounced. The exercise in caution has arrived, in part, from the increased scrutiny of all potential Oscar contenders (though Casey Affleck, whose Manchester by the Sea also played at Sundance last year, seems to be bouncing toward an Academy Award win with no trouble), as well as from the producers' desire for a campaign that could aide Rees in making Oscars history.
And, in part, all this just seems like an unfortunate syndrome of Sundance, a festival that — despite its increasing attention to diversity — still features few larger black-centric films: Two in a row can't help but get grouped together in people's minds.
Which, frankly, blows. Mudbound is a different and better movie than The Birth of a Nation. It's one that’s nuanced and challenging where Parker’s (personal history aside) was bluntly effective. Rees, working from a screenplay she and Virgil Williams adapted from Hillary Jordan's novel of the same name, doesn’t root her story in any one character. Instead, she lets the point of view slip from one person to another, and with it the narration, creating a chorus of voices sharing their particular experiences.
The result is a film that portrays different sorts of systemic oppression in which its characters survive with a lived-in weariness. We're made to understand, for instance, the combination of gratefulness and growing resentfulness that Laura McAllan (Mulligan) feels toward her husband, Henry (Clarke), who spared her from a life of spinsterdom but feels no obligation to consult her or even ask her in advance about the huge decisions he makes for their family — like moving them to the Mississippi countryside.
We feel for Laura’s frustration and her sense of impotence, which she describes via her own voiceover. But she, in turn, is oblivious to the ways in which she wields her privilege as a white woman, as when she offers Florence Jackson (Blige) a job that Florence could use, but also isn't sure she has the option of refusing. Laura seems unaware of the difficult position she's putting Florence in, but the film makes it clear: The camera tracks Florence’s gaze as it slips from Laura’s smiling face (“Good news!” Laura chirps) to that of Henry's bitterly racist father (Banks), who also lives in the house and who’s poised to make Florence’s life hell, whatever her answer.
Henry has a habit of assuming that his sharecroppers' time and labors are his for the taking, and Florence’s husband Hap (Morgan) quietly rages against being treated as property rather than as a tenant. Hap dreams of owning the land taken from his family during Reconstruction, and can’t understand the restlessness of his son Ronsel (Mitchell), who returns from World War II to a country that treats him as less than human after he was lauded as a hero abroad.
It’s suave Jamie (Hedlund) who sets Mudbound’s main plot in motion by returning from the war traumatized and tired, intent on defying the white supremacist legacy of his Southern town and befriending Ronsel, the one local who understands what he’s been through. Jamie, like his friend, was there when the world broke, and he has no interest in returning to any pretense of racial hierarchy enforced by sneering men who need their place in society to be propped up. In depicting that relationship, too, Mudbound is clear-eyed, revealing sincerity but also the innate power imbalance in terms of which of the two men risks more by disobeying old rules.
By the time it approaches the end point suggested in its opening scene, Mudbound has a half-dozen plates spinning, having set them in motion so deftly that it’s easy not to have noticed. That’s how rich Rees’s film is, extending empathy to all of its characters while providing excuses for none of them, especially not the ones benefiting most from systemic oppression. It’s a film about the past, but it’s also one about intersectionality, about the strengths and the limits of the connections that can form between people based on shared experiences of gender, of race, of war. It's a story that may look old-fashioned, but sure doesn't feel that way.