MUDBOUND — Review by Esther Iverem

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The human, under surveillance and under American Southern totalitarianism, is the recurrent theme in the new, compelling Netflix feature “Mudbound.” Director-producer Dee Rees adapts Hillary Jordan’s World War II-era novel with the appropriate amount of claustrophobia and stricture befitting Jim Crow Mississippi. Continue reading…

The story follows two families: the McAllans, whites who “own” the land worked by the Jacksons, a Black family of sharecroppers, headed by Hap and his wife Florence. The superb acting by this ensemble—including Carey Mulligan as Laura McCallan, Jason Clarke as her husband Henry, Garrett Hedlund as her brother-in-law Jamie, Rob Morgan as Hap, Mary J. Blige as Florence and Jason Mitchel as the Jackson’s eldest son Ronsel—breathe life into the somewhat well-worn terrain of Southern gothic.

Woven throughout the story is another one about the freedom to live, love and forge friendship. Both Jamie and Ronsel go off to fight in the war and are transformed by their experiences, witnessing an up-close panorama of life and death. And then neither is prepared for the mud-soaked life on a farm when they return home. Jamie is burdened what would now be termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. While Ronsel must assuredly be suffering some of the same impact from the war, “Mudbound” focuses on his burden because of the color of his skin. Ronsel is gnawed by the memory of his time in Europe when he did not have to bow down to the authoritarian laws of segregation, second-class citizenship and terror.

Overall, the character of Laura McAllan is more finely drawn than others and, as viewers, we are made to sympathize with her journey from “old maid” to wife to unhappy wife more than with other journeys that are perhaps more urgent. But despite the comparatively less detail given to the Jacksons, “Mudbound” does interrogate the 20th century color line—and, to a lesser extent, the class line— and all that those lines entail for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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Esther Iverem

Esther Iverem is a multi-disciplinary writer, author, producer and curator. Her diverse body of work, which includes radio, three books, two digital media projects and several visual art exhibits, is about social justice and human existence—its history, current state and possible futures. It is also about the environment, including its mysteries extending into the universe. She is creator, producer and host of ‘On the Ground: Voices of Resistance From the Nation’s Capital’ (www.onthegroundshow.org) on Pacifica Radio, founder of the pioneering website SeeingBlack.com and a founding member of DC Poets Against the War/Split This Rock. She is a recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a National Arts Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University. Her most recent book is We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies (Hachette Book Group).