Films about race and racism can be important. They’re also difficult to make. Witness Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, which failed last year to convince moviegoers and award voters. Now, 2017 has been a better year for the genre. The dark and brilliant satire/suspense/horror/social commentary Get Out — it is not easy to categorize — was one of my favorite films of the year. That movie by the director/comedian Jordan Peele now has to compete with Mudbound, a haunting historical drama.
The film by Dee Rees is set in the 1940s in the Deep South. It centers on a white family, the McAllans, moving to the Mississippi Delta from Memphis, trying to build a new life on a muddy plot of land. And it focuses too on the Jacksons, a black family that has been working that same land for generations. On the rugged terrain they are trying to cultivate they are forced to work together. And while most of the characters do not see each other as equals, they do learn to treat one another as human beings deserving of respect — sometimes.
The sons in the family set the tone for this. The colorblind friendship between these two characters, Henry McAllan and Ronsel Jackson, is the hinge of the story. Both are powerfully played by Jason Mitchell and Gareth Hedlund. The young men have served together in Europe. Their experience on the front lines has taught them that race and skin color mean nothing between two Americans when they fight Nazis (when that word still had meaning).
The bond between these strapping good guys embodies a beautiful sentiment. It may have been rare back then, it is the backbone of the story. Rees, who is black, has placed it there.
Her film, visually overwhelming with a powerful narrative, needs to be experienced on the big screen. So I will not say much more about the plot, except that it will keep you engaged and perhaps enraged at times. It grabs you, as great stories do, especially those about pioneers. That’s how I saw it, and Rees too. “I really approached this as a pioneer story and staged the narrative visually, in many ways, like a Western,” she says in the production notes.
What I love about the film is that it’s honest. Rees is not trying to score points or convince anyone by tugging at heartstrings. Instead, she tells a realistic, straightforward story about family culture, the meaning of home, a slice of American history, friendship, and the brutish violence that is such a big part of American history — or any history for that matter, something many Europeans like to forget in their peaceful little postmodern realm (though peaceful for how long is far from clear).
Is it necessary, or important, to see a film in which racism is so deeply ingrained in the characters’ psyches? Yes, because it can inspire. The time period is not that long ago, but how different America is now. In a way, seeing life in the racist Mississippi Delta portrayed allows us to realize this great country has done a pretty good job. No one and certainly no country is perfect, but the United States has made huge leaps toward overcoming the terrible traditions of institutional racism. And in a few decades, really. That’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to celebrate.
Still, Mudbound will probably not put you in a celebratory mood. But you will marvel at some terrific acting, especially by two lead women, played by Mary J. Blige, the R&B singer who clearly has a huge talent for acting, and Carey Mulligan, once again suggesting she should be considered as award season takes off. So the storytelling is great and the acting is very good, as is the cinematography of the beautiful land — a supporting character in and of itself.
To me, Rees has made one of the best films of the year not only because it details a slice of our history that is both depressing and uplifting. But also because it allows us to realize that this country of pioneers can, and does, work to correct injustices like few other places do.
I do realize Mudbound is not for everyone. For them there is Wonder. With Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, this lovely family film will make you think and feel. Feel good, in fact. About Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Julia Roberts, and Izabela Vidovic, whose characters together form a quirky family. About humanity’s capacity to make right what first went wrong. About the life of a disabled kid whose struggles lead to some meaningful victories in the end.
The face of little Jacob Tremblay (a seasoned actor at age 11) has been transformed into a completely different one by the excellent Dutch makeup artist Arjen Tuiten. I mention him not because of our shared nationality, but because his work here and in LBJ proves he is, at a still young age, one of the leading artists in his field. Jacob plays Auggie, a sweet, smart kid born with a “facial differences.” It’s a severe deformity that has put him through many surgeries and now, on the first day of school, Auggie prefers to wear an astronaut’s helmet to just hide his face from the world.
The story follows the kid and his parents, perfect roles for Wilson and Roberts, whose chemistry on screen surprised me. Together they must confront the reactions by the children Auggie meets. Kids can be cruel and the mental torture in Wonder can be tough to watch. But kids can also change and show kindness so pure we may believe in the future once again after seeing it in action here.
Like Atypical, one of my favorite TV shows this year, the film has a troubled boy in its center, but the older sister is an important figure in her own right. In this film she (Via) is played by Izabela Vidovic, an actress just 17 years old but already skilled at combining the love a big sister provides with the loneliness felt by the sibling of a special-needs child. Augie is the sun of the family’s universe; Via is just another star. But the movie makes room for her. Director Stephen Chbosky has made many such choices: careful, good choices that let the smaller characters shine, including new best friend Jack (Noah Jupe), who shows that redemption exists.
The epic final scene will make you cry and cheer. Like I said, Wonder is a great little holiday film.
Wonder is Rated PG and it will be entertaining for families even with young children. Mudbound is rated R. Both films premiere nation-wide Friday, November 17.
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