Sundance has one of its first big hits on its hands.
Dee Rees’ Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, premiered Saturday night at Park City’s Eccles Theater to a standing ovation from a rapturous crowd. This marked Rees’ first theatrical feature since her 2011 debut Pariah, which also premiered at Sundance. (She also made TV movie Bessie for HBO in 2015.)
Set in the Mississippi Delta during and immediately following World War II, the film follows two families: the white McAllans, who own a large farm, and the black Jacksons, who are sharecroppers on the McAllans’ land. When both Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) return from serving in the war, they become friends, bonding over their shared experience. However, while the two men saw the world change enormously when they fought for their country, they come home to find that rural Mississippi stayed very much the same, and neither their families nor their community looks kindly on their friendship.
“I just wanted to juxtapose the battle at home versus the battle abroad, with the battle at home sometimes being even bloodier than the battle abroad,” Rees said in a Q&A after the screening. And it’s not only bloodier, but filthier too — the look of the film, and the cleanliness of its characters, echoes its title. “For me, the mud was a metaphor for the suck that we’re all in,” the filmmaker said. “The mud, and the suck, and the elements being kind of indifferent to our suffering.”
The story spoke to Rees in part because both of her grandfathers fought in a war, and “both went away and kind of came back [and] didn’t quite get what they should have gotten,” she said. “This film is about a search for citizenship, it’s about the impossibility of going home.”
“I always wanted to do a movie like this, but I never wanted to do a movie with a character that put his head down and ran and was afraid,” Mitchell said. “I feel like there’s so much more than that, that you have so much more to stand for as a black man. Even if it means your life. So when I saw the character, I was like, ‘Yo. Yo.’”
Rob Morgan, who first worked with Rees on Pariah and plays Ronsel’s father, Hap, in Mudbound, was similarly thrilled by the script. “You had some words you could chew on; you had some emotions you could chew on,” he said during the Q&A. “How could I not take the damn role?”
But it’s not just about the men. Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan play Ronsel’s mother and Jamie’s sister-in-law, respectively, and the two women have a special connection despite their vastly different experiences and the tension that exists between their families.
“Besides race and color, as women, we have a bond. There’s this thing that we all understand about each other,” Blige said at the premiere. “Mary was always just really incredibly truthful, so to act with, she’s just open, and I think that relationship worked because of that,” Mulligan gushed about her costar, to which Blige replied, “Right, and because you were so tight!”
The film has yet to be picked up by a distributor.