Sunday, December 17, 2017

December Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: Dee Rees' MUDBOUND

“The arc of the moral universe is long, 
but it bends toward justice.”
 ....Martin Luther King, Jr.

Writer/director Dee Rees (below) and screenwriter Virgil Williams adapted this quietly painful yet transcendent saga from a novel by Hillary Jordan — a tale of the daily rigors of two families who work the same unforgiving land in the Mississippi delta of 80 years ago. The ensemble drama, MUDBOUND, gives voice to the point of view of each of the main characters, bound as they are to each other and the mud, furrows, and trials of eking a living off the land. It is also as pure a study of bigotry as you’ve ever seen — the everyday condescension that blacks and other minorities still endure. The movie captures the relentless dailiness of this as if it were today, not the 1940s.

In that way it is also the story of our original sin — the polar opposite of the flag we fly: “all men are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights…..”. The current iteration of American racism smacks of repressed rage at not being so white and Christian anymore; the sounds of America have gotten meaner as our non-white population increases. The President sings the same tune as everybody’s racist uncle and Mudbound’s foul-mouthed Pappy. Trumpism is racism, says Adam Serwer, an Atlantic editor.

Trump’s appeal doesn’t originate in economic suffering; his followers are driven by the desire to suppress non-white America’s civil and voting rights. The film plunges us into the murk of racial memory, the metaphorical mud of the delta; it stars everyday meanness in its Jim Crow rules and poverty. The Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of Mudbound compares it to great literature of Faulkner and Steinbeck and the sweeping film sagas of William Wyler and John Ford. The difference in Mudbound is that it is the daily earth-bound struggle itself that is epic — the warp and weave of farm life under segregation in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s, writ large.

The landowner is laconic Henry McAllan, his cheerless wife Laura (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan, below), their daughters, and sadistic, racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, early in his years of leading-man heart-crushing) goes off to war and then returns home.

Their tenant-farmer neighbors, shown below, are the Jacksons: Hap (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (a poignantly heroic Mary J. Blige), and their children including oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) who also makes the round trip to war and back home to the delta.

Hap Jackson grieves his ancestral ties to this earth: “What good is a deed? My grandfathers and great uncles, grandmothers and great aunts, father and mother… worked this land all their lives, this land that will never be theirs… They sweated until they bled; they bled until they died… Died with the dirt of this same 200 acres under their fingernails… all their deeds undone. Yet this man, this place, this law say you need a Deed--not deeds.”

Laura McAllan dreams in brown, knees and hair encrusted in mud (constantly refreshed by downpours), boot-shaped brown patches marching across the floor. Violence is part and parcel of country life, she says. “You’re forever being assailed by dead things. Dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find them in the yard, you smell them rotting under the house. And then there are the creatures you kill for food. Chickens, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels. Pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat. Start again…..” There is miscarriage, incest, adultery, murder, and Klan violence quietly woven into the fabric. But the central relationship is that of the returning warriors: Jamie a bomber pilot and Ronsel a tank sergeant in the black battalion that General Patton used to spearhead his army (archival photo below).

The story occurs at a turning point referred to as the ‘forgotten years of the black revolution’ — World War II and it’s aftermath.

Ronsel (above, right) says: “Home again, home again jiggity jig; coon, spade, darky, nigger. Went off to fight for my country and found it hasn’t changed a bit. Over there we were the liberator, they were lined up waiting for us, throwing flowers and cheering. Here I’m just another nigger pushing a plow…..

“The army gave us separate barracks, separate blood supply, separate latrines... But them European girls they didn’t have any problem with us at all… But that was then… and right now I guess I’m right where I should be — throwing my life away.”

The two depressed men get drunk together, flouting the ingrained habits of segregation and leading Pappy (below, left) to scold Ronsel: “I don’t know what they let you do over there, but you in Mississippi now — you leave by the back door”. It doesn’t take long for both former soldier-heroes to feel like aliens in a South they have grown out of.

In fact, the end of legal segregation in America and the British de-colonialization of Asia and Africa were the unplanned outcomes of war fought against German and Japanese racism. Although, as Ronsel says, they were segregated as soldiers, they got jobs, pulled their weight, and black and white fought as one against the enemy. Dee Rees makes the point with a U.S. flyer shooting down Germans who were pummeling Jamie’s plane, after which the rescuer, a black pilot, hi-fives Jamie on a fly-by (archival photo of black airmen below).

In the 1920’s the socialist speaker/writer, A Philip Randolph, organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; during the 1941 war build-up he organized a march on Washington demanding that blacks be hired for factory jobs. When Randolph assured the president that 100,000 would show up and demonstrate, Roosevelt signed the order, the march was pre-empted, and blacks entered the workforce.

After the war, Truman ordered the integration of U.S. armed forces. Black voters then turned out to help Truman defeat Dewey in the 1948 presidential election. The next leap forward for civil rights wasn’t until 1963, taking us into the modern era of integration.

No -- Mississippi held no post-war hope for Jamie or Ronsel, and Rees crafts off-ramps for them, leaving the delta to marinate in Jim Crow. The viewer comes away feeling waked up again to the fact that ever since slaves were brought to America we have been mired in racism. Still, this movie with its mostly note-perfect story-telling is uplifting rather than depressing. Last week Mississippi opened its civil rights museum and a Democrat, civil rights lawyer Doug Jones, just won an Alabama Senate seat ("turning back the dead hand of George Wallace," said Howell Raines, retired editor of The New York Times and an Alabama native). We are on a journey and must move forward.

Mudbound got raves on the festival circuit but was not picked up for distribution until content chief at Netflix, Ted Sarandos, stepped up. Yet this might be one of the more absorbing and meaningful films of the year in its quiet revelation of America’s original sin. It came to theaters and has been streaming on Netflix since late November and has received some nominations for awards, including Mary J Blige’s ‘Mighty River’, a spiritual she co-wrote and sang for the film (press here to have a listen).

The above post was written by our 
 monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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