‘Hey, honey, let’s go see that movie called ‘Mudbound,’” said nobody ever. Following a predictably lauded premiere at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, where indie films that take trendy social positions receive sanction, this 1940s-set drama about the sad state of American race relations in rural Jim Crow Tennessee, is finally opening to chase awards — and further media approval. Its release presupposes that Millennial filmgoers are all Sundancers, eager to see the latest sentimental manipulation of liberal sanctimony. In terms of how our political culture works, movies about the past are only significant as an accusation against the present.
Mudbound presents the poor white McAllan family and the Jackson family of black sharecroppers, who exist in uneasy relation to each other, as essential American archetypes. The implication is that nothing has changed despite the decades of social struggle and various civil-right laws. White domination and black degradation are shown as unchangeable truths that moviegoers should simply recognize, accept and — in the spirit of progressive good intentions — enjoy.
But where’s the pleasure in a narrative so dry and predictable as this?
The McAllans, being desperately self-centered and mean-spirited, suffer no end of bad luck while the noble Jacksons dream of reclaiming the land stolen from them. But the Jacksons’ desire to establish their own provenance is ruined by the whites’ constant impositions — and then World War II happens, taking away the oldest Jackson son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), to fight in Europe. When Ronsel returns, he feels as lost and restless as Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), a romantic figure who also returns from war.
These young veterans understand each other through shared experience — they’re the generation of change — but both are helpless against the long-standing custom of racist inequality. Instead of placing emphasis on the vets’ worldly education, the film ignores enlightenment in order to feel superior to the past.
Mudbound typifies a new kind of unpleasant entertainment based on social-justice homilies. This cultural phenomenon is interesting only because it dramatizes the self-abnegation that politicians, editorial writers, and sanctimonious filmmakers like to use to shame folk into accepting progressive policies. But Mudbound becomes tiresome from its opening scene: Jamie and his older brother Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) are pale and shivering in the rain, digging a grave for their Klansman father, when they unearth a long-buried slave corpse still attached to a chain.
Mudbound typifies a new kind of unpleasant entertainment based on social-justice homilies.
This pseudo-Faulkner symbolism, of Jamie and Henry both mired in the muck of their sinful American legacy, is an offensive narrative device. It’s from a novel by Hillary Jordan, part of the politically correct posturing now dominating contemporary literature and Obama-effect movies. Like the elite-sponsored polemics of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mudbound extends the myth that we as a nation are submerged in an inescapable, barely understood, and unresolvable heritage of shared misery and antagonism. This dire vision might even be true, but the onscreen evidence is dodgy; Mudbound lacks the authenticity and justification of genuine folk art. Its politics and its drama — intermixing narration by several dissatisfied characters, particularly the Jacksons’ stoic matriarch (Florence, played by Mary J. Blige), and the poor white girl (Carey Mulligan’s Laura) who married into the McAllan family and fell in love with her brother-in-law Jamie — are all Sundance-fake.
Every time I reflect on Mudbound, I keep thinking of its title as “Mudbone.” This hindsight isn’t simply erroneous, I think I’m subconsciously reacting against the title’s grim, self-congratulatory conceit. Mudbone is the name of a fondly regarded character in comedian Richard Pryor’s stand-up routine. Pryor’s Mudbone, an old-timey black Southerner was also a conceit, but one based in the common colloquial understanding of black folks who learned to put their legacy of suffering and struggle in a new context of wised-up endurance. Pryor conceived Mudbone as a profane counterpart to Langston Hughes’s Simple, a figure in a series of faux-naïve short stories that dispensed hard-earned folksy wisdom about black survival.
The soundalike alliteration of “Mudbound” and “Mudbone” is what anthropologists call a homology. It reveals an analogy between “human beliefs, practices, or artifacts owing to genetic or historical connections.” But the movie warps these connections. It turns folklore against us by pretending to unite us in misery.
This phony-lore — whether Coates’s self-righteous monologues, the diversity sit-coms on ABC/Disney’s primetime TV schedule, or Mudbound’s solemn melodrama — gives the film a queasy, cynical tension. Phony-lore creates the opposite effect of the humorous, folkloric catharsis in Hughes and Pryor. It’s an unsophisticated form of social instruction, as proven by Dee Rees’s hackneyed, emotionally flat direction. Several montage sequences that contrast battlefield events and farm tragedies make for trite parallels. Her narrative is cramped by Sundance cynicism that includes the women’s frustration (a subplot of sexual resentment); the veterans’ alienation (minus any convincing sense of military experience — the weakest war scenes since Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna and George Lucas’s Red Tails); the depiction of whites as cartoonish (Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks as a sneering racist named Pappy); and blacks who embody modern defiance, unrooted from the reality of the 1940s. A black preacher delivers a eulogy for the McAllans that is really a curse.
Rees’s misstep into Sundance territory is a conventional career hazard; she’s outside her wheelhouse as suggested by her previous films Bessie and Pariah (a more sensitive film than its wack title indicates). Unfortunately, this phony-lore is yet another example of the Obama-effect tendency, even for young directors like Rees. Take, for example, singer Mary J. Blige’s image as Florence. Instead of a characterization, it’s a frieze of sullen, wounded, resentful postures, capped when she puts on sunglasses to hide her vehement indignation — it makes R&B singer Blige (“Not Gon Cry”) look more like a diva than ever. Blige’s mostly silent pop gestures are loaded with contemporary signifying. She recalls the black Civil War soldiers at the beginning of Spielberg’s Lincoln whose attitudes were not only ahistorical but seemed prescient in a way that telegraphed Spielberg’s own phony-lore.
Mudboud epitomizes the latest instance of counterfeit Americana. (Politicians would call it politicizing the past.) When one character escapes the gruesome treachery of the American South by seeming to walk into a Fassbinder movie-climax, this mess of undigested attitudes feels entirely unhelpful. Some viewers might think they are moved by Mudbound, but it’s, really, just nausea.
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— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.