Netflix’s “Mudbound” Isn’t Conquering The Award Circuit Because Black Pain Isn’t The Star Attraction
Actually pain is the main attraction of Netflix’s Mudbound — a stellar offering by the incredibly talented Dee Rees — who gave critics reasons for enduring praise back in 2011 when her debut feature Pariah hit the circuit. The then burgeoning filmmaker captured the moving portrait of a 17-year-old African-American girl who is trying to embrace her lesbian identity.
Her latest effort is a supreme victory and displays the signature moves of Rees— who has a glorious penchant for storytelling — especially when the themes run deep and heavy — with authoritative reflexes that hold the audience in place — until the very end.
Mudbound is that film about the residue of slavery that manages to present a landscape of direness within the weary scope of its characters — without the back to back lashings and the sweaty Black bodies piled up for White gawkers in movie theaters to entertainingly mourn.
Perhaps, that explains why its reception has been limited to the critical acclaim from seasoned publications and modest recognition from the awards circuit. It seems only films that center around historical references with the the added graphicness of black pain to boot are permitted entry by Academy members — and the other notables that are wired to only recognize a specialized brand of Black cinema.
The Butler (2013) was just the right mix of respectability in the midst of an African-American man who spent more than 30 years as the White House butler. Of course this impressive story is the perfect setting for a sprawling tale that gives White actors the roles of a lifetime while also outfitting White audiences with proof of how Black and White relations didn’t always encompass whips and chains. There was some dignity in services rendered.
Precious made its theatrical debut in late 2009 — and it was such a hit that it was royally feted during the 2010 awards season. The effectively torturous tale of a young Black woman who faces an uphill battle in her quest for victory — against the forces of abuse and poverty was readily embraced both at home and abroad — as it also garnered the attention of the Cannes Film Festival.
12 Years a Slave was strategically unleashed at the tail end of 2013, which primed it for the journey to countless nominations that ended with the prized Best Picture win at the Oscars. There was no way that we could sit through the painful scenes of blood, sweat and tears without the guarantee that a slave movie about a slave who suffered his way to freedom with other slaves — would be rewarded accordingly.
Mudbound isn’t scheduled to enjoy a similar experience this time around despite the stirringly haunting performances against the muddy backdrop of the poverty-stricken South — and the chaotic belly of World War II — including the moving portrayal of two families who intersect for the purpose of survival.
The two war veterans — one White and one Black — are soaked with the residue of their individual experiences on the battlefield. They end up returning to Mississippi — changed men — who are challenged with the struggles of settling back into the climate of hate and desperation — that only exacerbate the symptoms of their mental and physical wounds.
So far — actress and singer Mary J. Blige who plays the stoic matriarch — Florence Jackson — has been singled out as the mascot for Mudbound — thanks to her multiple nominations and the heaps of praise for her quietly stunning performance.
Any level of recognition is always appreciated — but it’s quite disappointing that director Dee Rees hasn’t been elevated in a manner that should reflect her monumental achievement — in an arena that hasn’t be particularly kind to Black women regardless of their contribution.
Rees created a gem that is gratifyingly balanced without relying on the amplifications that have anchored past films with a similar backstory. It’s a simple yet complex delivery that is beautifully unwoven through the threads of the past — that still permeate through every fiber of our current existence with vengeful familiarity.
It’s quite possible that Mudbound is simply to potent for esteemed voters who prefer to watch the full effect of Black pain without the diluted version that distributes the woes of mankind inhabiting a certain era — through the normally erected saviors — and into the wet dirt of a riddled country — that didn’t discriminate when it came to hard labor and suffocated dreams.
Dee Rees should’ve garnered a Golden Globes nomination for best director — and she most likely won’t get nominated for an Academy Award — but that won’t downplay the value of Mudbound or make her blazing talent any less enviable. She will surely have more opportunities in the horizon and eventually it will be impossible to conveniently ignore her presence.
In the meantime — we will have to suffer through another award season with the bitterness of realizing how a Black woman with all the qualifications in place — is regulated to the sidelines in favor of male counterparts who served what was apparently more appetizing.
It’s certainly a muddy world out there.