Mudbound Essay

Hillary Jordan’s book won the Bellwether Publication Prize, an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver for novels dealing with social issues. If Kingsolver’s imprimateur isn’t enough to get you reading, well, what is?

World War II has just ended, bringing war heroes Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson back to their farming families in the Mississippi Delta. McAllan, white, joins his older brother Henry, himself a veteran of World War I, Henry’s bride Laura, and Pappy, their racist, son-of-a-bitch father, on Henry’s recently purchased farm. Henry loves the land and is overjoyed to be growing cotton in the rural Delta mud. Laura, uprooted from genteel city life and her family, is unhappy and resentful, reduced to living in a shack lacking plumbing or electricity, tending to Pappy’s endless demands.

For Ronsel Jackson, who was part of the 761st Black Panther Battalion, life with his family, sharecroppers on Henry McAllan’s land, is a crushing return to the racism permeating Delta life. His father, Hap, advises him to lay low. His inability to do so establishes a plotline that keeps the reader turning pages to the bittersweet end.

Jordan tells Mudbound from various viewpoints: Laura, Henry, and Jamie all take turns on the McAllan side. Hap, Hap’s wife, Florence, and Ronsel take up the Jackson end. What emerges is a faceted story of the damages wrought by war and racism. Jordan’s great gift is her ability to inhabit such disparate characters so well, seamlessly using language to convey their distinctions. When Florence, a midwife and lay healer, first meets Laura, she observes:

“First time I laid eyes on Laura McAllan she was out of her head with mama worry. (Laura’s daugthers had whooping cough.) When that mama worry takes ahold of a woman you can’t expect no sense from her. She’ll do or say anything at all and you just better hope you ain’t in her way.”

Hap, just after taking a bad fall, informs us “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughtly spirit before a fall.”

Racism is as much a part of life as the endless, worrisome rain. Even Laura, a gentle, musical woman who relies on Florence for household help, remarks:

“Anyone who believes that Negroes are not God’s children never heard Lilly Mae Jackson sing to him. This is not to say I thought of Florence and her family as equal to me and mine.” Indeed, Florence and Lilly Mae are not permitted to use the McAllan outhouse or eat at their table.

It is Jamie’s return to the McAllan household that brings an already simmering pot to a boil. Outwardly charismatic, flirtatious, and charming, Jamie is suffering from war-induced PTSD and increasingly severe alcoholism. He is soon in trouble with the law. His burgeoning friendship with Ronsel sparks the town’s ire. Both men ignore warnings to avoid one another, leading to the novel’s gruesome climax.

Jordan slips bits of social commentary in around the edges, as well. When Hap becomes seriously ill after a visit from the hateful Doc Turpin, Laura finds Doc Pearlman, who speaks with a funny accent and wears “a little knitted a doily...”. When Hap nervously informs him that Ronsel has fought the Austrians, Pearlman replies “I hope he killed a great many of them, a remark that leaves the Jacksons shaking their heads over crazy white people.

A woman’s duty to her husband is woven through the novel. Henry is well aware of Laura’s unhappiness on the farm, even afraid of it, but it never occurs to him to ask her what she wants. He stands by as his father verbally abuses Laura and frightens their small daughters. He endures -- even accepts -- Pappy’s appallingly racist remarks. He is, as Florence notes, “landsick”, his urge to tame the Delta into cotton bolls verging on the pathological.

Jordan’s other great gift is making her characters likable despite their failings, so we understand Laura’s narrowmindedness, Henry’s chauvinsism, Jamie’s ultimately killing weaknesses. Only Pappy and his buddies are thoroughly despicable. If only they weren’t so reminiscent of more recent events: it is impossible to read Mudbound without images of the Ninth Ward flooding one’s inner eye or recalling the remarks made by former First Lady Barbara Bush:

"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Publisher: Algonquin
ISBN: 156512569X
Author: Hillary Jordan
Price: $22.95
Length: 324
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-03

Mary J. Blige in “Mudbound.” (Netflix/AP)

LOS ANGELES — At a posh Italian restaurant in West Hollywood last week, the actress Alfre Woodard was in full barnstorming mode. Hours earlier, she had introduced a screening of the World War II-era drama “Mudbound” at the Pacific Design Center across the street, praising it for “showing us where we’ve been, who we are and where we’re going.” At the after-party, having introduced the film’s co-writer and director, Dee Rees, as well as supporting actress Mary J. Blige, screenwriter Virgil Williams and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Woodard urged the crowd — many of them members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — to “tell 25 friends” about “Mudbound,” adding, “And tell them to tell 25 friends.”

Campaign season is heating up in Hollywood, where on Friday nominations for this year’s Academy Awards will be finalized. (They will be announced on Jan. 23.) And in many ways, “Mudbound’s” journey through the awards process crystallizes the anxieties, best intentions, blind spots and vertiginous changes gripping the motion picture industry.

[Dee Rees wanted to make ‘an old-fashioned movie’ and ended up with an Oscar contender]

After its premiere at Sundance a year ago, Rees’s film — an ambitious, multilayered saga of two families in the American South — should have been subject to the kind of legendary bidding war that made Sundance famous. It didn’t turn out that way. And to understand the reasons, one must recall Sundance one year earlier, when Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for the Civil War-era drama “The Birth of a Nation,” actor Nate Parker’s directorial debut, in just the kind of Cinderella story for which the festival has become revered by up-and-coming filmmakers.

Keenly aware that the film — about a rebellion of enslaved laborers led by Nat Turner — was well timed to address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Searchlight clearly saw potential for a marketing coup. Which explains why the studio vastly overpaid for a film that, while commendable, exhibited much of the awkward obviousness and clunky storytelling typical of first films.

Ultimately, “The Birth of a Nation” was scuttled by accusations that surfaced from an episode of alleged sexual assault perpetrated by Parker while he was a college student. The film tanked, its awards prospects torpedoed. When, just a few months later, buyers saw “Mudbound” in Park City, rather than judge it on its own merits, they saw a “black film” and period piece that bore too close a resemblance to “The Birth of a Nation,” even though it was thematically different, stylistically distinct and frankly, far more accomplished. The studio executives who could have shrewdly leveraged awards season to bring awareness to Rees’s classic, masterful film, instead gave it a pass, made skittish by their own unexamined biases, cynicism and racist pigeonholes.

Then who should step into the breach but Netflix, which paid a healthy $12.5 million for “Mudbound,” earning Rees’s praise for “paying what the movie was worth” and giving it a realistic and deserved shot of connecting with audiences. Unlike its closest streaming competitor, Amazon, Netflix usually opens its films in theaters in only one or two cities; for “Mudbound” they made an exception, taking it briefly into a handful of theaters while making it available to home viewers.

Because Netflix keeps box-office and streaming numbers private, we don’t know how many people have seen “Mudbound.” But we do know that the company is intensely interested in Oscars, having hired top awards strategists to help mastermind its awareness campaign. In addition to Woodard, Sandra Bullock co-hosted a party celebrating the film earlier this week at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles; Rees has been hitting the talk-show circuit with the likes of Trevor Noah; Blige was nominated for a Golden Globe for her revelatory performance in the film; and Morrison became the first woman to be nominated for an award from the American Society of Cinematographers. Even Barbra Streisand tweeted a few encouraging words.

[Best movies of 2017: ‘Mudbound’ is a quintessentially American classic]

The support bodes well for “Mudbound’s” chances of being nominated on Friday. But at the party after Woodard’s screening, the obstacles were clear, as well: Academy voters (many of them older white men) expressed ambivalence about Netflix, wondering aloud whether something can be called a “movie” if it’s mostly seen on small screens, while wistfully noting that they wished they could get a piece of the company’s deep-pocketed largesse. Although “Mudbound” has been nominated for a clutch of industry awards — including best ensemble from the Screen Actors Guild, a reliable harbinger for the actor-heavy academy — it was recently shut out for awards at the Directors and Producers Guilds. How it fares with the academy will be an index not only of its quality, but of changes in the movie industry having to do with technology, gender and race.

The biggest stumbling block might be the Netflix connection. Netflix founder Ted Sarandos is said to really want the prestige (and earned awareness) that Oscars bring. But he isn’t doing himself many favors by continually dissing an industry that still prizes the big-screen theatrical experience as an essential part of the cinematic art form. Amazon (whose founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post) has been more diplomatic, making it a habit to open its movies in theaters before making them available for streaming.

Sarandos is far less accommodating. At Cannes last year, where Netflix premiered “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Sarandos told the London Telegraph: “Remember, we’re living in an age where everything is at our fingertips, and there are very few things in the world that you still have to do at a certain time and place. I know why I have to be at the airport at 8 o’clock to be on my flight, but I don’t know why I have to be at the theater at 8 o’clock to see the start of my movie.”

Director, Dee Rees, left, and Mary J. Blige on the set of “Mudbound.” (Steve Dietl/Netflix)

More insidious — and less quantifiable — than the Netflix problem is the fact that Rees is an African American woman; although this is a year when she and Greta Gerwig and Patty Jenkins and Jordan Peele could all fairly be nominated for their directing, they are in danger of being relegated to “slots” by the still majority-white-male academy, making it impossible for more than one to compete at a time.

All of these factors will come into play as academy members complete their nominations this week. So far, “Mudbound’s” best chances seem to be in the cinematography, adapted screenplay and supporting-actress categories. As for best picture: It would be a shame if voters’ conflicting feelings about Sarandos and Netflix wind up punishing “Mudbound,” not only because the movie possesses the scope, storytelling, acting prowess and pictorial grandeur that defines an Oscar movie, but because the artists who made it would make such an invaluable contribution to the cultural conversation that awards season inevitably entails.

As we’ve seen in the days since the Golden Globes ceremony (at which “Mudbound” was up for two awards), awards season isn’t just about the horse race, but about the zeitgeist artists can help interpret, clarify and reframe. By rights, “Mudbound” should earn multiple Oscar nods — for best picture, director, cinematography, writing and acting, to name a few — purely on the basis of its excellence and craft. But it’s also a movie for now, its refraction of history touching on questions of race, class, gender that feel both ancient and urgently of the moment. “Mudbound” deserves to be part of the Oscar race purely on the merits, but we could all stand to reflect on where we’ve been, who we are and where we’re going.

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