Engrossing ‘Mudbound’ digs into a 1940s South mired in racism

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This image released by Netflix shows Jason Mitchell in a scene from "Mudbound." (Netflix via AP) Photo: Netflix, Associated Press

Films exploring racial strife often employ symbolism, highlighting a flag, a statue, a Molotov cocktail thrown in protest.

The most significant emblem in “Mudbound,” a tense, immersive drama set on a 1940s Mississippi farm (and also available on Netflix starting Friday) is a person, not an object — a struggling white farmer named Henry (Jason Clarke).

Henry is not as virulently racist as his father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks, cartoonish in the film’s lone faulty performance). Yet, he defends his father’s poisonous behavior toward Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a black soldier just back from World War II. Pappy blocked Ronsel’s way when the soldier dared try to use a grocery store’s front door.

Ronsel is the son of Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), tenant farmers on Henry’s land. Henry knows the Jacksons are better people on their worst day than his father is on his best. But he still pressures Ronsel to apologize to Pappy, for slightly disparaging Pappy while verbally defending himself at the grocery store.

Henry also charges the Jacksons for the use of Henry’s mule, after theirs dies. This cuts into the tenant farmer’s earnings, enhances Henry’s and draws the disapproval of Henry’s wife (a weary Carey Mulligan).

Institutionalized racism was not built on extremists like Pappy, but on men like Henry, its expedient middle managers. We know Henry is aware what he does is wrong because Clarke shows Henry hesitating, girding himself, before ordering Hap or Ronsel to do something demeaning. But self-interest beats out discomfort.

The best thing about Henry is his wife, but she grows less fond of him with each day on this farm, which Henry recently bought without consulting her first. She tries to retain a measure of civility, through the piano she keeps in the family’s rotting farm house, and the decency she shows the Jacksons.

The struggles in “Mudbound,” based on Hillary Johnson’s novel and directed with assurance by Dee Rees (HBO’s “Bessie”), are specific and domestic, not the grand or revolutionary acts associated with most films delving this deeply into racism. The story’s eventual move into brutality is all the more devastating because of well-observed intimacy that preceded it.

The same muddy fields that look like hope to Henry look like a trap to Ronsel and Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), also just returned from war. Mitchell shows the effort it takes for Ronsel to try to lift the depression that set in when he returned to his dreary, racist hometown. In Europe, he encountered beautiful scenery and open minds.

Ronsel forges a friendship with fellow veteran Jamie — a dangerous association because this is the Jim Crow South and because Jamie, to whom Hedlund lends equal parts soulfulness and recklessness, is a drunk. Each time Ronsel goes off with him, you worry, like his mother does.

Singer Blige’s performance is not especially memorable. But it is effective, fitting seamlessly into a period ensemble in a way Banks’ does not. The bond between Florence and Hap to whom Morgan gives solidity and grace — is the film’s strongest. The Jacksons know things are rigged, but do not let anger overwhelm them. That’s territory better left to creeps like Pappy.

Carla Meyer is a Northern California freelance writer.

Mudbound

POLITE APPLAUSE Drama: Directed by Dee Rees. Starring Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund. (R. 134 minutes)

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