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Returning WWII vets forge unlikely friendship across color line in ‘Mudbound’

Kam Williams | 12/1/2017, 6 a.m.
“Mudbound” is a searing Southern saga based on Hillary Jordan's best-selling, first novel of the same name. The movie marks ...
Actors Rob Morgan and Jason Mitchell portray father and son in “Mudbound.” Courtesy Elevate Films

Dateline: Mississippi, 1946 — which means many of the Magnolia State’s native son soldiers are making the adjustment back to civilian life after serving overseas during World War II. But the fighting isn’t over for Sergeant Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), a black man reluctantly returning to the repressive Jim Crow system of segregation.

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‘Mudbound’: Excellent (4 stars)

Rated: R for nudity, ethnic slurs, brief profanity and disturbing violence

Running time: 134 minutes

Production Studios: Elevate Films / MMC Joule Films / Armory Films / Zeal Media

Distributor: Netflix

As a returning soldier, Jackson figures it’s reasonable to expect equality and all the rights of citizenship, racist traditions notwithstanding. After all, he had been willing to die for his country. So, when he arrives home, he boldly enters the local general store through a door reserved for whites.

Despite still wearing his Army dress uniform, the proud veteran is greeted with a hateful warning snarled by a seething customer. “You’re in Mississippi now, [N-word]! Use the back door, if you don’t want any trouble.” Jackson obliges grudgingly, ostensibly less fearful of direct harm from the elderly white man than of the veiled threat leveled should he have the temerity to cross the color line again.

Jackson can’t afford to take any chances, because the intimidating bigot is Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), the patriarch of the family which owns the farm on which Jackson’s parents (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan) presently reside as sharecroppers. Pappy’s elder son, Henry (Jason Clarke), subsequently pays the Jacksons a visit, demanding an apology for the transgression.

The plot thickens when Pappy’s younger son, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a decorated Air Force pilot, comes back to the plantation with some new notions about race relations. He’s suddenly pro-integration after having fought alongside some brave Tuskegee Airmen.

Thus unfolds “Mudbound,” a searing Southern saga based on Hillary Jordan’s best-selling, first novel of the same name. The movie marks the sophomore offering from director Dee Rees, who made her impressive debut with “Pariah” in 2011. Here, she coaxes a career performance out of Mary J. Blige, who might very well be remembered come awards season.

How did Nina Simone put it? “Mississippi Goddam!”