The movies have tended to skip from slavery to the Civil Rights movement, but Dee Rees' Mudbound plunges into the complex tragedies of the in-between era of Jim Crow.
The film, which Netflix hopes will be its first feature-film Oscar contender, follows two neighboring families — one black, one white — on a hardscrabble farm in 1940s Mississippi.
"I was interested with exploring the idea of who gets to be in possession of the land — how it's sometimes impossible to go back home, how family can be the thing that drags you down," Rees said. "It's not just about race. It's not just about oppression. It's about how our histories are intertwined, how we're connected to be the people who came before us."
For Rees and many of those involved, making Mudbound was itself an experience interwoven with heritage. Rees, the Nashville-native filmmaker of 2011's Pariah, drew heavily from the journals of her grandmother, whose Louisiana parents picked cotton. Her grandfathers — one who fought in World War II and one who fought in Korea — also informed the script, which Rees co-wrote with Virgil Williams.
"For me, it was a chance to delve into my own history," Rees said. One young character was given Rees' grandmother's humble ambition: to be a stenographer.
After the debut of Mudbound at the Sundance Film Festival, Netflix plunked down $12.5 million for it; streaming begins Friday, as does a small theatrical release. Should it find Academy Awards attention, Mudbound could be not just Netflix's first best picture nominee but potentially make Rees the first black woman nominated for best director.
Reverberations for today
In its biracial dichotomy, Mudbound — grippingly dense, expansively empathetic — stands apart from most previous period films. As a rich, earthy moral tale, it has clear reverberations for today's racial injustices.
Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, it details the McAllan family, who are white, and the Jackson family, who are black. Swindled out of his family's savings, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) brings his wife (Carey Mulligan) and daughters to his family's swampy Delta farm, where the Jacksons — a family of six led by Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) — are their tenants.
"It's a time period that's rarely touched in cinema, that sharecropper's time period," Morgan said. "For black America, they either see you as a slave or in jail. You don't get to see that Jim Crow period where the underbelly is still ugly but it's hidden."
It's a thin veil, though. When World War II begins, both families send a young man to war: Henry's brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and the oldest Jackson son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell).
When they return, having been exposed to both the horrors of war and, for Ronsel, the comparative freedoms of Europe, they strike up a friendship that provokes the small town's violently racist elements, including the Ku Klux Klan. The movie opens ominously with the digging of a muddy grave.
Having starred in numerous recent period films (Suffragette, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Great Gatsby), Mulligan initially hesitated to join the film. But she was quickly convinced by Rees' devotion to depiction of the myriad relationships among the families as each character individually responds to the era's rigid and prejudiced social hierarchy.
'There's no hero'
"There are flaws in each character. There's no hero. There's no clear villain because of the social construct at the time," said Mulligan. "Everyone's just struggling within the same environment, and all kind of facing away from each other — at least at the start of the story, they are."
Mudbound, shot over 28 days in New Orleans in the summer of 2016, is a big step into epic storytelling for Rees. She made 2007's Pariah, about a Brooklyn teenager's fraught sexual discovery, with $450,000 and followed that up with the 2015 HBO Bessie Smith biopic Bessie. Rees, who's currently prepping a Gloria Steinem film with Mulligan set to star, has made films that are deeply personal and convincingly intimate without being autobiographical.
"With Pariah, at the time, I had just come out. I had a coming out experience and I was writing about it, transposing my experience as an adult: What would it have been like if I had been a teenager in Brooklyn?" said Rees. "The funny thing was people thought I was from Brooklyn. I had to be like, 'No, I'm from Nashville.' "
Mudbound also holds particular meaning for Morgan, who co-starred in Pariah. A native New Yorker, Morgan spent his childhood summers working in North Carolina tobacco fields. Hap, he said, is his tribute to his grandfather — a strong and selfless man devoted to his family.
"Hap was my chance to give a voice to the voiceless of countless black men in America who would do for their family whatever it takes, who would be humiliated with dignity for his family to survive," said Morgan. "Hap is a man who understands he's in Mississippi. There doesn't have to be a reason he could be hung. So he has to be smart enough to play dumb enough to survive."
As Mudbound moves along, Rees intercuts scenes at the farm with snapshots of war. All are fighting their own front, but with varied levels of freedom.
"Each one of these families is striving. Each one wants to have a larger lot in life. They both aren't there. They're both stumbling," said Rees. "The only reason to do this was the chance to tell two stories and the chance to talk about two families."