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Five Cent Cine At Home: Mudbound

Farming in black and white

“Mudbound” opens with the McAllan brothers, hardscrabble white farmers eking out a living in the Mississippi Delta, burying their father. Struggling to get the coffin in the hole they’ve dug, Henry (Jason Clarke), the older brother and the owner of the land, asks the help of a black family approaching in a horse-drawn cart. Knowing glances are exchanged. The black patriarch, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), reluctantly agrees and adds, “My sons are not going to do this.”

The film returns to this scene at the end, and by then the audience knows what the glances and Hap’s comment mean. “See,” this well-worn filmic technique says to the audience, “see what you learned from our film?” Despite its didacticism, the scene works. The audience has learned a lot — about the interaction of poor whites and blacks in the Deep South of the 1940s, about their similar struggles, their intertwined lives, and their failure — with one poignant exception — to bond across racial lines.

It’s a stunning movie that should have received a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

“Mudbound” succeeds because of its highly literate script and gripping cinematography, both earning Academy Award nominations. Through heavy use of voice overs, writers Virgil Williams and Dee Rees (Rees also directed) allow white and black poor to narrate their lives and voice their concerns in a near-poetic language, capturing the literary feel of Hillary Jordan’s book, on which the script is based. From Hap Jackson: “What good is a deed?… [My ancestors] broke, tilled, thawed, planted, plucked, raised, burned, broke again… Died clawing at the hard, brown back that would never be theirs. All their deeds undone.”

The ensemble cast, brought together by Casting Directors Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram, is exceptional. R&B singer Mary J. Blige is unexpectedly strong, eschewing her customary sexy clothes and make-up to portray Jackson’s proud, resilient wife, Florence.

It’s a stunning movie that should have received a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Available: Streaming: Netflix. See JustWatch here.

Date: 2017 (review originally published in February, 2018)

Director: Dee Rees

Mudbound ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund,Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige.

Oscars: Nominated: Best Supporting Actress (Mary J. Blige); Best Adapted Screenplay (Dee Rees, Virgin Williams); Best Achievement in Cinematography (Rachel Morrison); Best Original Song – “Mighty River” (Raphael Saadiq, Mary J. Blige, Taura Stinson).

Runtime: 134 minutes

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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