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Indie director Dee Rees pens a lyric and complex indictment of race relations

Photo: Left: Jason Mitchell and Right: Garrett Hedlund perform roles in “Mudbound”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

For years now, the film industry has struggled with developing a release schedule that recognizes and accommodates the paradigm shift that has taken place in audience viewing as a result of tighter windows for the unveiling of film content across ancillary markets. That’s a fancy way of saying that the advent of first DVDs, then Blu-rays, and now streaming services has altered the revenue streams for films. No longer is it as profitable to keep a movie in theaters for weeks or months at a time, when viewers are willing to pay monthly subscriptions granting them quicker access to the titles from the comfort of their own homes or more accurately, their devices.

The emergence of Netflix as a major player in the subscription/streaming game has impacted the distribution system even further, since the company has, in the last couple of years, begun purchasing and releasing original feature films. In order to review their rollout of the new Dee Rees film “Mudbound,” which I was fortunately able to catch on the big screen during its presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival. I feel like I’m forced to comment on a potentially flawed model that negatively cut into the awards season run of a film like Cary Fukunaga’s hauntingly gritty translation of the Uzodinma Iweala novel “Beasts of No Nation,” another Netflix festival acquisition.

“Mudbound” opened in eleven cities—on multiple screens in New York and Los Angeles, along with Atlanta, Boca Raton, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC—and streamed everywhere on Netflix this past Friday. The move guarantees the film earns qualification as an Academy Award entry, but it means that it misses out on the sustained critical word of mouth from writers around the country that generates the kind of buzz necessary to gain traction.

Which is a crime; a clear and present danger to the cultural welfare of the film-going community, because Rees (“Pariah”) and co-screenwriter Virgil Williams, in adapting this bestselling novel by Hillary Jordan, has captured high-voltage lightning in a bottle. “Mudbound” addresses America’s eternally peculiar racial dilemma from a moment—the 1940s in Mississippi—rooted in the distant past, linking it to our current predicament, while challenging us to realize a sad futility about our inability to ever meaningfully rectify and bridge the divide.

What this film says about race cannot be confined to one character or perspective. It seems to adhere to a novelistic approach, speaking through a collection of voices gleaned from two families’—one white, the other black—viewpoints in a larger diagram that require connections for the image to take shape. The white McAllans own a large plot of land in disrepair that promises the dream of a quick turnaround, while the Jacksons sharecrop on the property, seeking the opportunity to save up enough to achieve the “40 acres and a mule” that was never extended, as part of reparations, to them.

Among the echoes in this disparate choir, Mary J. Blige, the undisputed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, never makes, even a fleeting, appearance onscreen. Instead, she disappears inside Florence Jackson, a woman who is hardworking and committed to her family and its best interests at a time and place when certainly the country and the community she finds herself in could care less about the barest notion of her life. Blige lends her muted voice, but it is her raw presence that cannot be denied, making sure that we can be neither deaf nor blind to this woman’s universal work. Florence Jackson is an American beacon as elementary and powerful as the Statue of Liberty.

She begrudgingly sends her oldest son (Jason Mitchell) off to World War II, which doesn’t make much practical sense to her either. He’s going off to fight for a flag and people that don’t cross her radar. She sees and knows only the white folks who own the land she works on, the same ones who lay claim to their precious few resources (human and material) without thought. She goes to the McAllan house to take care of their sick children when her own husband (Rob Morgan) can barely sustain himself after an injury.

Through the Jackson family, the narrative begs viewers to consider a host of questions like who do you work for, and when do you ever get to see the fruits of your own labor? And it dares the country—from its idealistically flawed past to its continually conflicted present creeping forward into a future with little hope for change—to figure out a way to recognize and support every narrative woven into the American fabric.

Are you listening, Netflix?

Rating: R; Grade: A