Film Review: Dee Rees Confronts Class, Race, Poverty in Astonishing Mudbound

Image courtesy of Netflix

It’s a real shame that people won’t get a real chance to see festival-favorite Mudbound on the big screen in most places in America. It’s a deeply impactful work about two families who have so much in common they could be related, except for the fact that one family is white and the other black. Set in post-World War II 1940s, the sprawling film centers on the McAllan brothers—would-be farmer Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), and his veteran brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). Henry owns the muddy Mississippi land that another family, the Jacksons, live on as tenant farmers. Patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan), wife Florence (a powerful, eye-opening performance by singer Mary J. Blige), and veteran son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell from Straight Outta Compton and Detroit) all share a rundown home and seem to be at Henry’s service whenever he needs extra help.

And while race relations were certainly in the earliest stages of shifting in America at the time, such was not the case in Mississippi, which seems overrun by the Klan (including among its ranks Henry and Jamie’s overtly racist father, played Jonathan Banks). But on this particular farm, life after wartime brings together unexpected friendships and alliances. Former soldiers Jamie (now a full-blown alcoholic) and Ronsel become drinking buddies and share stories of their unfulfilled lives on the farms. The wives also form a tentative bond, and it soon becomes clear that all residents of this godforsaken place are suffering in a similar fashion, even if they never quite acknowledge that out loud.

Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan and adapted by director Dee Rees (Pariah) and Virgil Williams, Mudbound captures the struggle of being black in the south so vividly that you almost don’t notice that it’s also equally about this poor white family wanting to do right by its tenants but afraid of losing status when compared to its black counterparts. Rees is absolutely devoted to the idea of presenting an authentic period experience, through both situations and language, but also showing that some people weren’t afraid to buck the status quo, even when they should have been. This is a sweeping, gritty story in which every character suffers to some degree, often as a result of doing the right thing.

The film finds ways to make the squalid cinematic and beautiful in its own way. All of the performances are rich and impressive, with Mitchell and Mulligan proving themselves standouts, as they both give us different examples of their barely contained rage over being forced to live in such unjust times. The fact that Ronsel gets a taste of what it’s like to be free and equal while stationed in Europe (even getting involved with a white woman for many weeks before being shipped out) doesn’t help his sense of frustration upon returning home.

Easily one of the most impactful film of the year, Mudbound is an endless stream of emotions, grand performances, and the endless search to find common ground among people who have every reason to pull together—and only one shameful reason to be separated. This is an astonishing work that deserves a big-screen run alongside the best films of 2017. If you have the opportunity to catch it in theaters, do so with all haste.

The film opens today at the iPic South Barrington and also is available on Netflix.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.