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'Mudbound': Oscar-Bound

Black and white families collide in a post-WWII drama set in Mississippi

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours 14 minutes

Stars: Jonathan Banks, Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan

Director: Dee Rees

To see Mary J. Blige play sharecropper matriarch Florence Jackson in Netflix’s Mudbound, you wouldn’t think she’s the queen of hip-hop soul who sold 75 million records. You’d think she’s one of five Oscar front-runners for best-supporting actress, which she could win in February at age 47. The film, about the tragic saga of one black and one white family in muddy Mississippi in the 1940s, is also a front-runner for best picture and director, and could be the first Netflix feature to score the gold doll. This is the kind of spectacular, character-rich, story-based emotional epic Hollywood used to make before superheroes took over.

There’s plenty of heroism in Mudbound, and horrific behavior, too. As sprawling as a Faulkner novel, it’s a complicated, well-woven tale about the Jacksons, whose ancestral farm was stolen at gunpoint during post-Civil War Reconstruction, and the McAllans, the impoverished white farmers they work for. Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) was an old maid when big, dumb galoot Henry McAllan (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke) rather unromantically courted her. She was so grateful — until he dragged her off into the stinky, adhesive mud of a Mississippi farm and life got as hard as his numb skull.

Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan in 'Mudbound'

Steve Dietl/Courtesy of Netflix

In "Mudbound," Mary J. Blige (left, with costar Carey Mulligan) turns in a soaring performance that could position her as an Oscar front-runner.

Laura feels more drawn to his sharper brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a hunky, poetical reprobate who comes back from World War II a flyboy hero, hugs Laura rather harder than he should, and bonds with a fellow veteran he really shouldn't: the Jacksons’ son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, who deserved an Oscar nom for Straight Outta Compton). Lots of white townsfolk want to salute Ronsel, but they mostly won’t. Not when he’s back from the Black Panthers (the WWII tank division that refuted racist views of black soldiering by inflicting 130,000 casualties on the Axis), and his emancipated notions collide with homicidal KKK guys like the McAllan boys’ Pappy (Jonathan Banks, 70, purged of the kindness that shines through his tough guy on Better Call Saul).

The war scenes are almost Dunkirk-worthy, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station) rapturously evokes rural homeland scenes where a subtler war is waged with a glance, a word, a knife, a gun or an incendiary Sunday sermon. Even people who mean well obliviously do harm, like Laura when she hires Florence to look after her kids. Laura knows how horrible it is to be forced to live with Pappy, who oppresses her more than Henry, but doesn’t get that Pappy menaces Florence more, nor that Florence neglects her own in caring for hers. “My own mother I remember being blue from the dark of the morning when the moon would still be up,” Blige says in one of many voiceovers that increase her Oscar odds, “kissing my sister and I on our eyelids, us pretending to be asleep, she going off to work to wake and kiss someone else’s children in sunlight. I swore that my own children would have all of me.”

Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund in 'Mudbound'

Steve Dietl/Courtesy of Netflix

Jason Mitchell (left) and Garrett Hedlund play World War II vets who bond upon their return home to Mississippi in "Mudbound."

With her second movie, Dee Rees leaps to the red-hot center of directors, and I defend her from critics of the movie's length, deliberate pace and many long voiceovers. No one would wish it longer, but Rees needs the time to make so many characters (and vivid themes and subplots: post-traumatic stress, addiction, cheating-husband hunting) resonate. The pacing would be more commercial if someone put some modernizing Benzedrine in its Ovaltine, but then we’d lose the flavor of wide-open rural time, and a place where the past is never dead, and starving farmers white and black stagger under the weight of centuries, every heartbreaking, backbreaking day.

What redeems all this sprawl is Rees’ precision, thoughtfulness, and sheer authenticity. I come from Deep River, Wash. (pop. 204), and though our battles were between Swede and Finn loggers, I recognize something real in Rees’ small-town milieu. When Florence Jackson is going to do something sensible that hurts the pride of her husband (brilliant Rob Morgan of the smash Stranger Things), he tries to stop her by quoting Ephesians 5:23 about the husband as head of the wife like Christ for the church. So Florence gently but firmly hits him with Proverbs 31:10: “An excellent wife who can find? She’s more precious than jewels; her husband trusts in her and he will have no lack of gain.” That’s how a woman wins an argument in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. And could be how a woman wins an Oscar in 2018.

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