With “Mudbound,” Rachel Morrison became the first female cinematographer to earn an ASC feature nomination. Her unique period look could also make her the first woman to receive an Oscar cinematography nomination. That would be special, given the subject matter of Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” which explores the black and white struggle for the American Dream on the Mississippi Delta of the 1940s.
And in visualizing the contrasts between the black and white family living and working on the same farm, the co-mingling of love and hate, Morrison achieved a poetic beauty that unites them. And for that, she truly deserves the Oscar nomination.
Visualizing the Racial Divide
“The power dynamic is real and that doesn’t ever quite change,” said Morrison, whose next movie is Marvel’s “Black Panther.” “It’s about the layers of different power: men over women, white over black, but, above all else, there’s more that connects us than separates us.”
Of course, Morrison was keenly aware of “Mudbound’s” relevance to the racial divide of today. “The harshness of all of the interwoven stories and bigger topics felt incredibly timely,” she said, “and it’s sad to think that close to a hundred years so little has changed. That was incredibly exciting to visualize.”
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The challenge was avoiding a faded look and coming up something fresh. Inspired by Gordon Parks’ celebrated color photography in Life magazine, Morrison decided on a pastel-like, understated richness.
“We wanted to shoot on film but we couldn’t afford it,” Morrison said. “Our goal was to make digital look like film as much as we could. Where I landed was somewhere between 1280 and 1600 ASA to introduce a little bit of digital noise, and then we did a full grain pass in the DI. Also, I chose older glass to soften around the edges reminiscent of old photographs.”
Given its title, “Mudbound” embraces the elements and fittingly opens in the pouring rain with the digging of a muddy grave. “The challenge was to make the audience feel like they’re getting soaked or stuck in the mud,” Morrison said. “The trick was to find something that feels tactile and rich but also maintain a humanity.”
“For us, it was a combination of shooting out in the real elements,” she continued, “which gives you a natural authenticity, and not using any makeup. There was a layer of mud on everyone: mud on the finger nails, mud on the faces. You get the sense that the mud is just pervasive. It was anti-beauty lighting throughout with the humidity of the South creating a natural, glistening quality to the skin.”
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The contrasts between the McAllans, the white land owners, and the Jacksons, the black sharecroppers, was conveyed through color, composition, and camera movement. “From a design perspective, the McAllans always had electricity,” Morrison said. “It was fritzy but they had power and they also had windows with screens that could separate them from the outside world.
“And the Jackson’s had neither, and there were differences in color. The Jacksons had earthy tones (they burned wood), and the McAllans had more pastels. There was color and there was almost a sense of entitlement because they were white and they owned the land and they had hope.”
There’s a sense of isolation in the home of struggling Henry (Jason Clarke) and Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), and more of an openness in the Jackson household between Hap (Rob Morgan), Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their children. But when Laura and Florence bond, “there’s more fluidity, which rises above the general state of upheaval,” said Morrison.
Magic Hour Interlude
Her favorite moment, though, is a romantic one when Laura’s brother-in-law, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), an embittered World War II vet, builds her a shower outside and she bathes at sunset. “It’s not a sex scene but the act of getting clean is so sensual for her,” Morrison said.
“So with this scene, it was one of the few that we planned for Magic Hour. With summer in the South, you never know what you’re going to get, but when you plan a scene for the right time of day and you actually get what you’re looking for, it’s like hitting a home run.”