By Rich Cline
Director-cowriter Dee Rees (Bessie) gives this 1940s drama such an epic scale that it might have played out better as a TV miniseries, with more time to flesh out the characters and complex situations. But the themes are so vivid that it still gets under the skin, and the nonstop voiceover from a variety of characters adds plenty of thoughtful insight. If only there were fewer plot details brought over from Hillary Jordan’s source novel, it might be an easier film to identify with.
It’s set just as the US enters World War II, and Henry (Jason Clarke) buys a farm in Mississippi. His wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) isn’t thrilled about leaving her comfortable home in the city to raise their two daughters in the muddy fields, accompanied by Henry’s racist father (Jonathan Banks). She gets some support from their black tenant Florence (Mary J. Blige), wife of sharecropper Hap (Rob Morgan), who hopes one day to have a farm of his own. Florence and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is fighting in Europe, as is Henry’s charmer of a brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). And when these two soldiers return, their friendship stirs resentment among the bigots in the surrounding community.
The film’s approach to segregation in the Deep South is riveting, and makes it important to see, especially as it so vividly depicts how this kind of racial division degrades everyone in ways that are both brutal and eerily subtle. And as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that something horrific is going to happen. Rees gives the film a soulfulness that makes it thoroughly involving, even if she gives away a couple of key plot points in the prologue. She also creates a strikingly realistic atmosphere, with a rainsoaked landscape so vivid we feel damp closing in around us.
Each of the main characters can be heard on the voiceover, which means that there isn’t a focal perspective to pull us through the narrative. Instead, we sit at some remove and watch the excellent actors express their earthy turmoil. The best scenes in the film are those between Hedlund and Hawkins, who have more textured interaction than other characters who are more one-note. So in the end, it’s the bigger picture that has the strongest impact, especially the larger context of Europe’s more integrated communities while the American South essentially figured out how to continue slavery. But what’s really scary is the realisation that in many parts of the United States, the situation hasn’t changed very much since then.
Facts and Figures
Production compaines: Black Bear Pictures, Armory Films, Zeal Media, MACRO, Elevated Films (II), MMC Joule Films
Cast & Crew
Screenwriter: Virgil Williams, Dee Rees
Starring: Carey Mulligan as Laura McAllan, Jason Clarke as Henry McAllan, Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson, Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan, Mary J. Blige as Florence Jackson, Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson, Jonathan Banks as Pappy McAllan, Kerry Cahill as Rose Tricklebank, Dylan Arnold as Carl Atwood, Lucy Faust as Vera Atwood, Kelvin Harrison as Weeks, Henry Frost as Teddy, Jason Kirkpatrick as Oris Stokes, Frankie Smith as Marlon Jackson, Claudio Laniado as Dr. Pearlman, Kennedy Derosin as Lilly May Jackson, Elizabeth Windley as Amanda Leigh McAllan, Joshua J. Williams as Ruel Jackson, Piper Blair as Isabelle McAllan, Rebecca Chulew as Pedestrian