Netflix Asks Us to Find God in the Mud of Mudbound

Rob Morgan in Mudbound, from the trailer
Rob Morgan in Mudbound, from the trailer

Netflix, the ubiquitous television streaming service, wants to become a venue for must-see movies, too, and it means to do so by winning a whole bunch of shiny awards. And while the Motion Picture Academy has been loath to give Netflix Oscar noms for its dramas, Netflix has unveiled its strongest contender yet: Mudbound.

It’s a lyrical, brutal, epic tale of two families in the 1940s whose fates are tied to the rich, loamy soil of southern Mississippi. It’s a story about race, war and secret desire, but it’s also about God—and the pain we may feel when it seems like he’s far away. (Caution: spoilers ahead)

None of the movie’s main characters are particularly happy. Indeed, they all, without exception, must feel trapped by the McAllan farm.

Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) sank every penny he had into stubborn earth steeped in family. His wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), left a comfortable life in the city to follow her husband, and she’s none-too-pleased about the change of location. Henry’s venomously racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), never seems particularly happy about anything, but he’s literally put out by the move—forced as he is to sleep in a lean-to because Laura can’t bear to part with the family piano. (“It’s the one civilized thing in this godforsaken place,” she tells Henry.)

But no one perhaps feels quite as trapped as the Jacksons, the African-American family seemingly doomed to work that patch of land for other people forever.

Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) are duly deferential, as expected in this corner of Mississippi: They greet Henry with “Sir,” Laura with “Ma’am” and swallow the poison Pappy spits. Even though the Civil war is 80 years in the rearview mirror, the relationship between the Jacksons and the McAllans seems to have hardly changed at all over the last 200 years. The literal chains may be gone, but the figurative ones are as strong as ever.

But everyone harbors a little seed of hope, and often that hope manifests itself in faith.

Laura and her girls sing hymns on the way to their new home:

In seasons of distress and grief

My soul has often found relief

And oft escaped the tempter’s snare

By Thy return, sweet hour of prayer

Hap preaches every Sunday at a half-built church: “I go to prepare a place for you,” he quotes Jesus, “That where I am, ye are here also.”

Someday, Hap tells his hopeful flock, they’ll “shake these chains from our feet.” They’ll be free. Really free, and not just in the next world: In this one.

Oddly, hope finds flower in one of history’s most devastating junctions: World War II.

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