Dee Rees’ 2017 film Mudbound fearlessly explores the complex relationship between a black family and a white family in 1940s Mississippi. Rees’ film ignores neither physical violence nor emotional trauma, dispelling the notion that female directors only make films centered on romance, child-rearing, and family life. Her take on the female characters is groundbreaking in that women are not reduced to longing glances or brief dialogue, and are active and prominent rather than passive and peripheral. While romance and family life are certainly themes in Mudbound, and the female perspective is deeply examined, the film still does not privilege the female over the male perspective. On the contrary, Rees studies her male characters with a great deal of nuance and depth.
Meanwhile, Mudbound’s sound design traverses time and space at some points and geographically anchors the film at others. News reports on the radio consistently ground us in the period, while a baby’s cries in an otherwise silent church recall the previous scene in which Florence (played by Mary J. Blige) tends to her son. Another impressive detail includes Rees’ illustration of the church, wherein she counters the stereotypical depiction of African American churches by contextualizing the importance they place on song: in the face of relentless generational strife and oppression, hope is a light that refuses to be extinguished.
Rees also treats both families with compassion. The film spans several years and highlights parallels between women and men, white and black Americans, the war front and the home front, and parents and children.
When Mudbound was released, it received a great deal of critical acclaim. However, Dee Rees’ name was too infrequently attached to the piece in headlines in the popular press. This leaves one to wonder how much more recognition Rees would have gotten if she were a man, or if she were white. Perhaps many still find it alarming that a woman of color made one of the most relevant films of the 21st century: Mudbound is more than a movie about Mississippi, race, or the 1940s. This is a film about America–with so many of its joys, anxieties, and heartaches distilled into cinematic form.