Delta Dreams: Dee Rees' 'Mudbound' follows two families' struggles in segregated post-war South

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In 2011, writer/director Dee Rees burst onto the filmmaking scene with her debut feature Pariah, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama about a Brooklyn teen coming to grips with her sexuality. Haunting and heartbreaking, Pariah netted Rees Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards on top of a blind script deal with Focus Features, which had distributed the film.

That script didn’t get produced, but Rees kept working, focusing on original stories. There was a meeting in place to possibly direct a studio film, but Rees felt like she “was working too hard to justify to myself why I would do it.” Pariah was a labor of love, one that was only possible because of people who believed in Rees and her vision; Rees wondered if she could “look these people in the face” if she went from intensely personal filmmaking to a for-hire job with a studio. Ultimately, she cancelled the meeting and kept writing original scripts. “I’m an art girl,” she explains, one whose goal is crafting “a very curated body of work and do[ing] things that matter. Even if they fail, I wanted to do things I care about and could defend.”

But no one ever said the filmmaking industry was an easy one. Rees’ original projects, particularly some things she was working on for TV, “didn’t go. That’s when I opened myself up to adaptations, saying, ‘OK, well, if I can’t get my own stories financed, maybe I’ll tell [other people’s] stories that are meaningful.” Which brings us to Mudbound, Rees’ third feature, out Nov. 17 from Netflix.

Though an adaptation of a novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound carries Rees’ indelible stamp. That’s not just because she’s credited as a co-writer, having done a pass on writer/executive producer Virgil Williams’ earlier script. Mudbound, like Pariah and Rees’ second film, the made-for-HBO historical drama Bessie, have in common a deft, poetic, empathetic affection for people whose stories tend to get ignored by the mainstream Hollywood establishment.

In Mudbound, Rees weaves together the stories of two families, one white and one black, connected by a plot of farmland in Mississippi. The Jackson family, led by father Hap (Rob Morgan) and mother Florence (Mary J. Blige), have been working the land for generations. The “blood and tears of [Hap’s] ancestors are in this land, but he can never own it,” Rees says. On the other side, there’s Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who packs up his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), his kids and his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) to their new homestead in search of a slice of the American Dream: a plot of land to call their own, a secured future. In both families, there’s a young man—Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund)—who goes off to fight in World War II, only to have wildly different experiences when they return to the Mississippi mud.

It was the interconnectedness of all these stories that attracted Rees to Williams’ script. “It’s this huge ensemble cast with all these relationships. It could have been two hours on any one pairing… [Instead] it’s this intertwining narrative, not just one person’s voice.” The characters themselves are “interconnected” in ways that they are sometimes slow to realize. Florence and Laura are both mothers, willing to do anything for their children. Hap and Henry are both driven by a “sense of an inheritance,” an angry yearning for self-determination. The strongest connection is between Jamie and Ronsel, who after the war strike up a friendship that rouses the racist ire of their community. The two are “united by a shared sense of trauma,” Rees explains, back before PTSD was fully understood. “They’re both damaged. They’re actually more brothers than Henry and Jamie are, but they can never consummate that.”

Though set in the ’40s, Mudbound bears no small resemblance to the western genre in the themes it tackles. Henry, like the cowboys of old, moves out West to grab his destiny, and if there are people already living on the land he thinks he’s entitled to…well, that’s just too bad for them. And once you get out West, life is hard, a constant struggle to keep nature—be it thick, sucking mud or the endless sand of the desert—at bay. Films made in the ’40s and ’50s were often “aspirational in this moralistic way,” Rees explains. “This is how things should be. This is how you should behave.” Mudbound peels away this “presentational” layer to show a world where even something as simple as “getting a glass of water is a great chore and a great grace that someone could offer you... It’s this life of trying to keep the outside out and the inside in. I wanted the film to move at the speed of life, [to show] the indifference of nature. The fields are indifferent to the farmers’ endeavors. The rain is indifferent to the family’s perils. It’s not that nature’s against people. Nature doesn’t care about you.”

Rees adds: “It’s never that clean.” She’s talking not just about the physical world in which Mudbound’s characters live, but also the moral. “I wanted to get behind the mythology of the Greatest Generation and to see what it really was.” And what it really was, for veterans returning home from the service, was GI benefits and ticker tape parades…for some. The opportunities weren’t there for people like Ronsel, who had to make the jarring transition from being cheered as a liberator in Europe to undergoing the humiliation of not being able to use the front door of a grocery store back home.

“I had two grandfathers in two different wars,” Rees explains—a maternal grandfather from Ringgold, Louisiana who fought in World War II, and a paternal grandfather from Fayetteville, Tennessee who fought in Korea. “Both of them had come from smaller country towns. And both of them, when they came back, it struck them that they weren’t able to go back to the places from which they came. The one from Louisiana went to California, and the one from Tennessee tried his luck in Chicago. Chicago didn’t work for him, so he ended up in Nashville. This idea of not being able to go back home, this idea of citizenship, was something I wanted to question. Who gets to be a citizen and who does not in this film? Ronsel is more an American when he’s overseas than he is walking down the street in the small town he grew up in.

“That’s how I wanted this film: messy and ugly and dirty,” a counterpoint to the “Leave It to Beaver” image that American tried to project in the wake of the great national trauma that was World War II. Rees wants audience members to come out of Mudbound, she explains, questioning the long-accepted “stoicism” of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. “Was it really stoic, or was it unexpressed suffering? Or was it guilt? These people had doubts and anxieties about themselves. They maybe worked out of a deeper sense of family obligation, or maybe they did quote-unquote what they had to do and not what they wanted to do. But it was not without a cost. All the gains”—the land and the education and the bright future for their families—“weren’t noble. All the gains weren’t just because they did the right thing. The gains came at the expense of others. And they came because of government support—it wasn’t just bootstraps. People were sacrificed in that scramble for the American dream, and we still see the aftereffects today.” There might not “whites only” water fountains in 2017, but there are still policies in place that are a natural extension of the Jim Crow era. Racism doesn’t just go away; “it travels down.”

Still, for all that, Mudbound depicts a world of injustice leavened by hope. We’re more alike than we are different, Rees argues, and empathy and communication will have a positive effect over time. The end of the movie sees Jamie, having shared a bond with Ronsel, a better person than he was before. He “isn’t going to be a perfect guy, but he might be a little bit more aware than Henry was, and Henry a little bit less bigoted than the world of Pappy,” says Rees. “You see this slow unfolding… [Jamie thinks of Ronsel], ‘You’re not like them.’ And the next step is, ‘Wait, there’s no them. There’s no ‘others.’Jamie might not get there. But his kids might take the next step.”