Watched: 17 November
A strong 1940s-set drama by Dee Rees about two families – one black and one white – who work on the same patch of land on the Mississippi Delta, though in every other way Jim Crow-era segregation is still in effect. On the one hand you have Jason Clarke’s Henry, who gives up a job in the city and moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and bitterly racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) to a rural farm. On the other you have Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), who face financial struggles when Hap sustains an injury. Their problems are worsened by Henry, whose sense of white entitlement means he only ever sees Hap as someone who can help him out of a bind, or an extra pair of hands to carry out work, as opposed to an equal, and the film smartly contrasts the different perspectives of the two men, particularly with regard to land ownership.
Further linking the two families are the Jacksons’ son Ronsell (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, for my money the best performer in a strong ensemble piece), who both enlist to fight in the Second World War and return somewhat haunted, understandably, and only able to fully open up to one another about their respective experiences. It’s Ronsell’s return that provides the film with a real narrative charge during the second half; a hero in Europe, where he has left behind a (white) sweetheart, he is met back home by the same degree of racism, or perhaps even stronger racism, than before, forced for example by Pappy and other Klan cronies to exit a shop by the back door and not the front, which is reserved exclusively for whites. It’s a moving, sweeping epic, with strong performances across the board, and it’s beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, who captures the pinks and reds of setting suns as they briefly turn the muddy landscape into something remarkably pretty. (***½)