Set in rural Mississippi during World War II, “Mudbound” focuses on two families—one white (the McAllans), and one black (the Jacksons)—who navigate life on a small farm and realize that not all battles ended with the war. Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 best-selling novel of the same name, the film, co-written by Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, progresses through different characters’ perspectives, giving the audience a chance to experience an intimate story about race, friendship, power and love. The film is anchored by a cast that includes Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan and music legend Mary J. Blige like you’ve never seen her before. The stellar ensemble also features Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks and Garrett Hedlund.
Blige, a nine-time Grammy Award-winning R&B singer, disappears into her role as Florence, the matriarch of the Jackson family, who is fighting to ensure a safe future for her children. Although Blige has proven her acting chops in 2015’s “The Wiz Live” and as Malcolm X’s widow Dr. Betty Shabazz in the 2013 TV movie “Betty and Coretta,” “Mudbound” solidifies her commitment to the craft. Blige previously won the Breakthrough Performance Hollywood Film Award this month for her powerful acting.
Mulligan plays Laura McAllan whose husband, Henry (Clarke), transplants the family from the quiet civility of Memphis to the farm, where she struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture. Mulligan, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2009’s “An Education,” strikes a balance between the strength needed to survive and the vulnerability each uncertain day farm life brings.
Clarke’s Henry is a hard man to feel sorry for — he’s indifferent to his wife and continues the institutionalized racism in his treatment of the Jacksons. But his ignorance seem just human enough to pity. In addition to appearing in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” with Mulligan, Clarke also played an intelligence officer in 2012’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and a bootlegging brother in 2012’s “Lawless.”
Jason Mitchell, who broke out as Eazy-E in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” stars as Ronsel, eldest son of the Jackson family who returns from war a confident veteran only to discover the social hierarchy at home remain stuck in the past. Mitchell’s heartbreaking performance anchors the Jackson family and cements his status as an actor on the rise.
Garrett Hedlund plays Jamie, the handsome and sensitive youngest son of the Jackson family, who becomes both friend and foil to Ronsel. Hedlund is no stranger to the role of soldier; he costarred as P.O.W. Fitzgerald in Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” in 2014. Bonded by the effects of their shared wartime experience, Ronsel and Jamie form an unlikely friendship that challenges the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South and sets them on a life-altering collision course with racism. The film also reunites Hedlund with his “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) co-star Mulligan.
Rob Morgan plays Blige’s onscreen husband, Hap. Their marriage is portrayed as a true partnership, with Florence stepping up to work on the farm when Hap gets a serious injury. Hap is a man of few words, but Morgan fills them with both raw emotion and restraint. “Mudbound” marks Morgan’s second time working with director Rees, having also appeared in her debut feature, 2011’s “Pariah.”
The clearest villain in “Mudbound” is Henry and Jamie’s bigoted father Pappy, played by five-time Emmy nominee Jonathan Banks. In addition to harboring a fair amount of resentment for both of his sons (Jamie in particular), Pappy’s racism seeps out of him like sweat, creating an even more hostile environment for the Jackson—a situation that’s worsened when Ronsel returns home from the war. Banks is haunting, and Pappy is a serious departure from the character fans will likely know him best: Mike Ehrmantraut, his iconic role from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”
Wherever you’ve seen this ensemble before, there’s no denying Rees brought together one of the year’s most talented casts. While each actor is formidable in their own right, it’s clear they shine brightly as group. The strong, unnervingly relevant story is the framework of “Mudbound,” but the performances will stay with you long after the credits roll.
[Editors Note: This article is presented in partnership with Netflix’s original film “Mudbound” – streaming exclusively on Netflix starting November 17.]