As a general rule, I typically dislike merged reviews. It’s a disservice to the filmmakers to clump unrelated work together. That being said, my festival experience today inadvertently became a journey of its own, with 3 radically different films all enhancing one another greatly. Rules are meant to be broken, especially in a creative environment like this festival. Let’s begin:
Dee Rees’ second feature film piqued my interest basely solely on her prior work Pariah, which is streamable on Netflix but for the most part, remains underseen. Yet after viewing Mudbound, my hopes are that this movie reaches the largest audience possible.
Based on a book of the same name, Mudbound tells the story of two families, one white and the other black, both struggling to survive as sharecroppers in 1940s Mississippi. The McAllan family is made up of a husband and wife, Henry and Laura (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), and Henry’s father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), all of whom are new to farming and sharecropping. The other family consists of Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) and their young children, who reluctantly find themselves intertwined with the McAllans. Despite their differences, both families each have a son/brother, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) andRonsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) who, after fighting in World War II, come back home to an even shakier family and societal dynamic.
Synopsis out of the way, this is an ensemble film in the best way possible. Every intersecting character relationship amongst the 6 or 7 protagonists is dynamic and realized, hence why it’s worth mentioning them all. Multiple characters have voiceover moments to narrate the story, a technique that, in this case, efficiently gives us an insight into what everyone’s personal struggles are. And through these struggles, we intersect with topics ripe for discussion. It would be obvious to say class and race, but the film doesn’t stop there: one in particular angle is viewing the film as a complex look at the strife of being a veteran, and the PTSD that the world has limited empathy for.
The most exciting part is seeing how Mudbound ties in these themes seamlessly with a wealth of metaphors. Like a magician’s left hand, the craftsmanship and deliberate choices in visuals subconsciously deepen the narrative. The most prominent of which is the use of mud as a recurring theme. Again, an initial glance makes the obvious notion of what it refers to. But in the sharecropper’s world, a filthy one where mud is everywhere, it comes into play in a numerous of enhancing ways. Multiple times the way the characters physically interact with each other also speaks volumes, notably in the tense relationship between the McAllan brothers, but can also be found in nearly all of the individual character connections. The highlight of Dee Rees’s last film was the stunning cinematography of then-unknown DP Bradford Young. Now, Rees collaborates with another indie favorite Rachel Morrison, and the results are spectacular. Intricate details that are brought forth, framing of the characters, and a wealth of individual shots that make a case to be remembered, yet service the story. This is where coming from source material shows its strength: the story allows more room for carefully thought out layers – no detail seems overlooked.
Between its marvelous story and craftsmanship, it’s hard to not feel like this is one film worth shouting about from the rooftops. After its two-hour-plus runtime, I had forgotten I was at Sundance, I had forgotten I was in cold weather in 2017. For the entire runtime, I was immersed in the characters’ journeys. In the year to come, as this film finds its way to audiences, I will do everything I can to recommend it to all.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Mudbound excels as a conventional narrative film, and my next outing would completely contrast this. The Sundance “New Frontier” film category is one that I often regard as the secret menu of the festival. While most people only think of the “New Frontier” as being VR experiences, I’ve found that the films/documentaries categorized here are some of the most invigorating. They’re defined as films that are pushing boundaries on what it even means to be a film. My favorite film of 2016, Cameraperson, premiered in this category.
This next film continues that streak. A ‘live documentary,’ which means that the director, Travis Wilkerson, sits at the front of the room, narrates it like a monologue, and cues the timing of the music and picture as it goes on. This is the type of experiences that is only able to be seen at a film festival, or perhaps an art gallery.
In this case, the medium is perfect given the story. Wilkerson is the descendant of an Alabama family. One of his relatives, his great-grandfather, is a man who was proud of the fact that he had killed a black man and gotten away with it. This is the beginning of a deeply personal, painful look at family and legacy, and Wilkerson’s journey towards understanding the horrific individual whom he shares genealogy with. Few pieces of research have ever been collected on this murder, so the narrative of the film is Wilkerson researching through his home state of Alabama, picking up clues and discovering the depth of this horror. By seeing it live, we feel as personally connected to the spoken word of this storyteller, in his own introspection. It would not have had the same effect had he not been there telling it himself. Interestingly, through the Q&A, he shared that the nervousness of having to sync of the video/music live while telling the story also helps convey the theme of how intense this journey is – brilliant.
Through this deeply personal lens, we also see what it represents about the larger racial picture of the American South. For this reason, there could not have been a better complementary film for me to watch after Mudbound than this one: two films of radically different styles each enhancing an understanding of American history from the last century. In one of the opening lines, Travis narrates, “This is not a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.” Yet hearing this and understanding these events, it’s impossible not to walk away as a more empathetic person.
I don’t know if this film will ever see a release in LA or New York: Wilkerson shared it’s a performance that gives him much anxiety and he didn’t expect to do it again after Sundance, but another film festival saw it and invited him, so now he feels it may be his duty to continue. With that in mind, normally a review is about recommending a reader if a movie is worth their time to see. In this case, I wanted to share how much more Sundance is than movie stars and parties. When it comes down to it, these are the experiences that have kept me coming back year after year, and as an artist, these are the moments I am most invigorated by. Rather than trying to see this one, I invite anyone reading this to seek out boundary-pushing, unconventional experiences like this one as a way to further enrich one’s life experience. Indeed, it has made my life all the better.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
Lastly, I caught a music documentary featuring an all-star cast, diving into a forgotten legacy of modern music and its influence by American Indians. We start with the titular song ‘Rumble,’ which was written by Link Wray, a Shawnee native, and are immediately reminded of his profound influence on the entire expression of music. ‘Rumble’ largely introduced the “Power Chord” that countless rockers would emulate for years to come, and has such a powerful effect that it is the only instrumental song that has ever been banned from radio play! Its anthem was the epitome of rebellion, pretty amazing a single guitar track could an impact that big.
And this is the beginning of a multi-part dive into the ways American Indians shaped music as we know it today. There are numerous individuals highlighted, but a clear takeaway is that American music in so many forms draws from the soulful connection to the earth and the use of music as essential human expression. It’s a largely forgotten history the film sheds major light on, which continues today.
Tying directly into my previous two film reviews: there is a largely overlooked part of Southern history of American Indians and African-Americans integrating. Because the two were both viewed as practically non-human for multiple generations, and due to some of the forcible movement of their communities, they found themselves mixing and sharing each other’s culture. This created a richly complex group of people and transformed into music that would gain worldwide influence. There is even a direct section on sharecropping and its results, furthering this day as an unintentionally perfect compilation of films.
The number of rockers profiled are too many to mention but include many surprises. For example– Who knew that Jimi Hendrix was, in fact, ¼ Cherokee and this culture had plenty of influence on his performance? I hope many people have the chance to see this film and, like other great music docs, discover a newfound way to appreciate great music with more depth. It’s a bit disjointed in its assembly, but the Q&A revealed that with so many stories to tell the hope is to turn this into a miniseries or a multi-part TV series (I believe that would be a better medium than a feature-length film).
Capping off one of the most invigorating days I have ever had at Sundance, together these three films represent the absolute best the festival has to offer. Bravo!