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Netflix's 'Mudbound paints heartbreaking portrait of racial divide in postwar US

Last Updated Nov 17, 2017 at 9:40 am PDT

This image released by Netflix shows Mary J. Blige, left, and Carey Mulligan in "Mudbound." Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, the devastating ensemble film debuting on Netflix Friday illustrates the interlaced lives of two families one black, one white sharing farmland in the 1940s Mississippi Delta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Netflix via AP

TORONTO – In adapting “Mudbound” for the screen, director and co-writer Dee Rees felt it was important to give equal voice to all the characters in the racially charged drama.

Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, the devastating ensemble film illustrates the interlaced lives of two families — one black, one white — sharing farmland in the 1940s Mississippi Delta.

It debuted Friday on Netflix.

Husband and wife Henry and Laura McAllan (played by Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan) are newcomers to the ramshackle property, sharing their cramped, rundown home with Henry’s racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks) who has ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

The McAllans meet sharecroppers Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) who have worked the land for generations, trying to rise above the social and racial barriers that seek to oppress them.

“One of the things that I liked were these multiple points of view,” said Rees, who co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams.

“I knew that I wanted this to be a story about two families … and how they have this symbiotic, dysfunctional connection to the land and to each other.”

To ensure equal ownership of the story, Rees made a point of writing monologues for Hap and Florence Jackson that weren’t in the novel.

“I just needed to give them more of an inner life that gives them a drive of their own and gives them an agency,” she says.

“I really wanted to contextualize them and contextualize their experience like they didn’t just spring up. They’ve been there for generations. So, it’s important to show that they themselves as people have roots, they themselves have connections and their own kind of connection to the work and to the land and to ambition.”

“Mudbound” also shows the interconnections between the McAllans and Jacksons through their sons, who form an unlikely friendship after returning home from war: air force pilot Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) who is seeking to shake free from the grip of postwar trauma, and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) who served in an army tank battalion and found life as an African-American man more liberating abroad than in the country he fought to defend.

Hedlund said that he and Mitchell had only a few weeks in New Orleans prior to shooting the film, but Rees had the duo spend as much time as possible together.

“I think when you bond between experience or similar facets of what you went through in your life … especially something like war, there’s a kinship, there’s a brotherhood that’s undoubtedly a never-ending bond,” said Hedlund during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival where “Mudbound” screened in September.

“Neither of them had anyone to confide in to talk about their experiences. And because they shared something so similar that bond was going to be undeniable.”

The screening of “Mudbound” during TIFF found an unanticipated echo in real-life headlines in the aftermath of a white supremacist rally and deadly protest in Charlottesville, Va.

Violence broke out after a loosely connected mix of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists assembled to protest the city’s decision to remove a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Heather Heyer was killed when a man plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

“Until America is able to confront its issues above board on the table with transparency we’ll always have those types of situations,” said Morgan of the events in Charlottesville.

“One of the things I always say is history is something that stops. If it doesn’t stop, it isn’t history. So we’re still living the same systematic oppressions, but it’s just in different forms now. It’s on paper, it’s in suit and tie, it’s in real estate, it’s in business, it’s in education.

“Hopefully, this movie will be a conduit to a type of dialogue that can take place to make this history stop. Actually become history. Because racism in America is very strong and alive.”