Fresh off of Moonlight’s stunning Best Picture win, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might unveil another group of all-white acting nominees this January, and only nominate films made by white filmmakers. To do this would be a huge step backwards for the Academy, who have worked earnestly these past few years to build a more diverse voting base. If this were to happen, one of the best films of 2017 would get lost in the shuffle, and it would all happen because of its unorthodox distribution: Dee Rees’ Mudbound, which drops on Netflix this Friday.
Rees, an African-American woman whose first film, Pariah, earned her an Independent Spirit Award, co-wrote (with Virgil Williams) and directed this adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s award-winning 2008 novel of the same name. The story recounts the saga of two families, the white McAllens and the black Jacksons, who are forced by circumstance to share the same plot of land in 1940s Mississippi. They get along peacefully at first, but complications arise when Jamie McAllen and Ronsell Jackson return from World War Two, developing a friendship which threatens to upend the social order of the small town. Although the first hour, with its multiple narrators, can feel disorienting at times, the film ratchets to a shattering climax in its second half that caused literal gasps when I saw it at the New York Film Festival last month. When it concluded, it received the longest standing ovation of any screening I attended.
In a subsequent panel discussion with Rees and her cast, the moderator asked what films they studied for inspiration. Jason Mitchell replied, “There are no other films like this one.” He’s right – most stories about the black experience in America overlook the Jim Crow era. This is probably because, to paraphrase blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Jim Crow produced no heroes or villains, only victims. This evocative look at a time seldom represented on film gives Mudbound all the more staying power.
The ensemble cast is one of the very best of the year. As Laura McAllen, Carey Mulligan gives one of her best performances, radiating sympathy as she tries to hold together a family torn apart through infighting. Her husband, played by Jason Clarke, is cast against type as her naive husband, whose brother Jamie (the equally excellent Garrett Hedlund), harbors affections for Laura. Stealing the show, however, are Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige as Ronsell Jackson and his mother, Florence. Mitchell, who should received a Supporting Actor nomination for his work as Easy E in Straight Outta Compton, excels as a man who loves life but hates its injustices; and Blige delivers her career-best work to date, a huge step forward for her as an actress.
The film deserves several Oscar nominations, but may not receive any because in Hollywood, the word “Netflix” scares people. This happened to Netflix’s 2015’s Beasts of No Nation. Determined not to make the same mistake Selma made, they launched a strong For Your Consideration campaign, sending DVDs to voters in all unions. I can attest to this because my mother, not an Academy voter but a member of SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild, got many Beasts DVDs and promotional materials. Although Beasts received a SAG nomination for Ensemble Cast, and a Supporting Actor win for Idris Elba’s performance as an African warlord, it was shut out from all categories in that year’s Oscars, because industry veterans, raised on the idea that a movie is something screened only in theaters, could not bring themselves to vote for it.
The problem isn’t limited just to the Academy. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Jury President Pedro Almodóvar disqualified two of the competition’s strongest films from awards consideration, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), because they were Netflix releases. Cannes issued a new rule further disqualifying any Netflix films from screening in the main competition. This displeased Cannes juror Will Smith, who stood up for the streaming giant when he said that his two kids still “go to the movies twice a week, and they watch Netflix…It has broadened [their] global cinematic comprehension.” Smith is not neutral – his newest film, Bright, drops on Netflix next month – but he is right that we need not fear them.
Netflix is not just the future of film-watching, it is also a haven for diverse filmmakers, distributing and producing movies by directors of color on a regular basis. Their work should not be ignored just because we may watch it for the first time on a computer, ipad, or big-screen TV. I have only seen Mudbound on the big screen, but I know regardless of how I watch it next, it will still have an impact. If skeptics dismiss Mudbound only because of this, then they are doing themselves, Dee Rees, and future filmmakers of color a grave disservice.
The good news is that some of the dead weight in the Academy’s Actors’ Branch (who nominate the twenty actors) have been downgraded to non-voting status. But nothing will happen unless people see this film and give it the acclaim it deserves. If #OscarsSoWhite happens again, it will be in part because Hollywood sees the Netflix label on their Mudbound screeners and puts it on the bottom of their DVD pile. They must not make this mistake, as they will be ignoring a true masterpiece, one which shatters our preconceptions and exposes us to new points of view. If movies are, to quote Roger Ebert, “a machine that generates empathy,” then the empathy Mudbound generates must be championed, and that starts with the nomination ballot.
The trailer for Mudbound is below:
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.