Tuesday, November 21, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Mudbound


"Pain is here." This line is taken from "Queen Sugar", a TV drama set in present day New Orleans which recently concluded its phenomenal 2nd season. But it could just as easily have come from Dee Rees' Mississippi-set period drama "Mudbound". In this powerful new film, two families - one white, one black - experience the pain of racism that is inextricable from the history of America and particularly its Southern states.

The aforementioned quote is a response to a plot-line involving the display of Confederate symbols in a well-heeled private school, which seems to bother only its few black students. In similar fashion, "Mudbound" opens with a scene where the deep roots of racism stare its characters in the face. A pair of brothers are digging a grave for their deceased father, only to encounter remnants of a murdered slave already laying there.

Over the course of this film, we learn of the events leading up to the racially frought circumstances of this burial. It involves the McCallans, a white family trying to build a new life as farm owners in 1940s Mississippi. The family includes Laura (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), as well as his charming younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and severely racist father (played to bone-chilling effect by Jonathan Banks). As they struggle to run a successful business amid imperfect rainy conditions, their lives intersect with the Jackson family, who are sharecroppers with ties to the land that extend back to slavery. Hoping to eventually buy their own land and provide for their family, Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) work tirelessly for the McAllans. But as World War II looms, both families will become even more connected, in ways neither could have anticipated.

Indeed, when Jamie and the Jacksons' eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from the war, the lives of all the characters are changed forever. While both are war heroes, Jamie suffers from crippling PTSD and Ronsel comes "home" to a society that treats him as a second-class citizen. The latter's experience is especially fascinating, as the astute script (a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay) starkly underlines the irony of being embraced more by the "evil" German enemies than his own countrymen.

As with similarly themed dramas, Ronsel's family faces unconscionable injustices as his enlightened perspective stokes the flames of hatred in the community. But the toil and suffering is only part of the story. Indeed, "Mudbound" captivates audiences by also exploring the better world that could have been. Through the unlikely friendship between Jamie and Ronsel (played with sincere chemistry between Hedlund and Mitchell), we see the capacity for human kindess that is still to be fully realized today. Likewise, the empathy shown by Laura and the strength of Mary J. Blige's Florence (a possible contender for Best Supporting Actress) is deeply felt. And there are other standouts in this stellar ensemble, as the poetic narrations allows their varying perspectives to resonate.

Indeed, "Mudbound" is a poignant film that will surely remain in the conversation in the coming months (look out for potential history to be made in Best Director and Best Cinematography). At once intimate and grand, bleak and hopeful; it has the feel of an American classic. This Best Picture contender is "prestige cinema" done right.

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