Netflix has been busy bringing good books to the screen—this fall we’ve seen Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (in conjunction with the CBC), and now Mudbound brought to life. Well-crafted, well-cast, and well-acted adaptations are quickly becoming the norm for the streaming service. In addition, these films are offering new opportunities for a diverse group of directors. Indian director Ritesh Batra made Our Souls at Night and the other two were both directed by women—Canadian Mary Harron was at the helm of Alias Grace, and African American Dee Rees presided over Mudbound.
Mudboundmay be the best yet. Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, it is the story of two families who intersect on one unforgiving piece of land. Henry McAllan and his wife, Laura, become the new owners of the farm the Jackson clan has been working for years. Both Henry and Hap Jackson have dreams of providing for their families on their own land. Henry, a white, Ole Miss-educated engineer, has the money to buy his way in; he sometimes seems to forget he can’t buy the people working it too. Hap, the descendant of slaves, is still battling the mighty disadvantages put in his way by racism and the laws that work against him.
Each family is awaiting the return of family members. When World War II ends, their two young men come back to rural Mississippi. The homecoming is complicated for both. Jamie McAllan, suffering from PTSD, comes back to an emotionally abusive father and a burdened brother. Ronsel Jackson finds a different trauma awaiting him: after being treated as an equal by Europeans, he is back to being a black man in rural Mississippi.
Jamie joins the rest of the McAllans in the dubious homestead, helping to run the barely profitable farm. Henry’s increasing fear of failure threatens to undermine his humanity. Laura, the lone voice of reason in the volatile McAllan family, is slowly buckling under the pressures and losses of the difficult farming life.
Ronsel, on the other hand, rejoins his close, loving family on the McAllan land. His mother, Florence, works hard to give the best of herself to her children, and his father, Hap, preaches at the local black church on top of his farm work, encouraging his congregation to have hope and to choose the right path.
Jamie and Ronsel find common ground in their war experiences. The white folks of the town don’t like the fact that Ronsel is a changed man, nor that he and Jamie have found a bond. His service to his country has not helped Ronsel to anything but more disdain, and there is a devastating price to pay for their friendship.
Each character dreams of a different life. But like the mud that stains everyone and everything on the land, the sins of hatred and violence in their lives clings to the families, miring them in the worst of human impulses. The rot of jealousy, greed, pride, and, most of all racism, threatens to destroy everyone involved.
This is a movie for adults, not for children. Mudbound is a painful look at the highs and lows of human nature, and it’s a reminder of how much we need the love and grace of God in our lives, and how much we need it from each other too.