‘Mudbound’ is an American classic. Will that be enough to sway anti-Netflix Oscar voters? A heart-wrenching and masterfully executed look at the legacy of Jim Crow

I can’t wait to see how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handles Mudbound.

Within the academy, there’s an institutional aversion to Netflix, the streaming giant that’s upended how we see movies, much to the chagrin of traditional distributors and movie theater exhibitors. But if ever there was a Netflix film that deserves to break through the bias, it’s Mudbound, a heart-wrenching, masterfully executed period epic from director Dee Rees.

Mudbound, which opens Nov. 17, takes the idea of two Americas popularized in the early 1960s by Michael Harrington and pivots from his thesis of a country divided by class to explore the way poor Americans of The Other America are divided by race. Based on the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, the film follows two families in the lead-up to World War II: the Jacksons, who are black, and the McAllans, who are white. The Jacksons are sharecroppers on the McAllans’ land, and both have sons who end up fighting for their country.

It’s almost Shakespearean, except unlike the Capulets and Montagues, the Jacksons and McAllans need each other, even if they don’t see themselves as the same. That goes double for Pappy McAllan, the family’s racist, sexist patriarch played with expert precision by Jonathan Banks. Pappy’s an irascible vestige of the Confederacy who is short on tact and long on grievances with everything around him, from the black people contributing to his family’s livelihood, to his daughter-in-law, Laura (Carey Mulligan). While the McAllans may not have much — in fact, they have so little that Pappy sleeps in a lean-to — the Jacksons have even less.

Still, if there’s anything like a great equalizer, it’s military service, and both the Jacksons and the McAllans experience anguish as sons Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) head off to kill Germans. Mary J. Blige gives a stunning performance as Ronsel’s mother, Florence. Her emotions, especially in front of Pappy’s daughter-in-law Laura (Carey Mulligan), his favored son, Henry (Jason Clarke), and other white people, are layered and controlled, rendering Blige nearly unrecognizable. It was nearly 45 minutes into the film before I realized why Florence felt so familiar — she’s played by the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

Florence is worried about her son and how the family will manage to break even in his absence, especially after her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan), suffers a gruesome injury. Laura worries about her brother-in-law Jamie, who is everything his father can’t stand: cultured, charming and not remotely cut out for farm work. Before he shipped off to Europe he even dabbled in acting. While Pappy may seem indifferent to his son’s fate, Laura insisted on moving a piano into their dirt-floor shack and sees Jamie as more than just a cosmopolitan nuisance.

It’s Laura and Florence who find a way to bridge the racial divide, if only because it’s key to their continued existence. Farming in the Mississippi Delta is backbreaking, frustrating, never-ending work, especially without the luxuries of electricity or indoor plumbing.

Rees also leaves her stamp on the Mudbound script, which she co-wrote with Virgil Williams, weaving in some thematic continuity from her stint as the writer/director of the HBO biopic Bessie. There’s a line in Bessie in which the famed blues singer from the early 20th century explains the difference between Northern and Southern racism. Northern whites, she says, don’t mind if you get big as long as you don’t get too close. And Southern whites don’t mind if you get close so long as you don’t get too big.

Once Ronsel returns from commanding a tank in Belgium, it becomes clear that he’s way too big for his white countrymen in Mississippi, and they’re itching to take him down a peg.


Hollywood’s anti-Netflix bias, the one that likely killed the Oscar chances of Beasts of No Nation in 2016, has scared off some independent filmmakers who want their films to have a shot during awards season. When a bidding war erupted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 for Birth of a Nation, for instance, Netflix had the highest offer. But director Nate Parker went with Fox Searchlight, betting that the company and the film would be better received when it came to award campaigning.

Mudbound highlights how much the motion picture academy needs to get over its Netflix snobbery. Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects. Its best recent films have boasted directors of color: 13th (Ava DuVernay), Okja (Bong Joon-ho), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and now Mudbound. Minority directors do not often have the luxury of dismissing generous offers from Netflix. So when the members of the academy turn up their noses at the company, they’re also dismissing some of the best work Hollywood has to offer. If Mudbound is ignored during awards season because the academy and other industry groups can’t get over their aversion to Netflix’s business model, it will only reflect poorly on them. Mudbound is just that good.

Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects.

Rees directs Mudbound with a confidence often anathema to mainstream film. She trusts her audience to follow her around narrative blind corners. And so, as Mudbound unfolds, it inspires engagement and curiosity. Every small choice Rees makes is a deliberate one with immense payoff. There are no extravagances, no unexplained moments that could have been done away with in the edit bay. (That’s why I’m revealing so little of the plot. It’s best if you come to it cold.)

If there’s a downside to Mudbound, it’s that most audiences will experience it from the comfort of their couches, or on their laptop or tablet screens. This is a film ideally experienced on the biggest screen possible. A theatrical audio system allows for a full appreciation of Damian Volpe and Pud Cusack’s chillingly immersive sound design, which captures the misery of a midsummer driving rain on the Gulf Coast and the thick, squelching morass of waterlogged Mississippi Delta silt loam.

On the other hand, Netflix, which boasts more than 50 million American subscribers, offers ample opportunity for almost anyone to witness a magnificent work of art — one that brings us face-to-face with the massive cruelties and savage inequalities of Jim Crow and forces us to reckon with its legacies. Here’s hoping the academy sees it the same way.

‘Marshall’ turns Thurgood into the contemporary hero Americans want, but ignores the one he was Not enough of the real NAACP lawyer shows up in Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal

Marshall, the new film from director Reginald Hudlin about the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, comes from a production company called Super Hero Films.

It’s an appropriate moniker, given that the star of Marshall is Chadwick Boseman — or, as he’s sure to be known after February, Black Panther. But it’s also appropriate given the way Marshall presents the man once known as “Mr. Civil Rights” as a swashbuckling, arrogant, almost devil-may-care superhero attorney barnstorming the country in pursuit of justice and equality.

Written by Connecticut attorney Michael Koskoff and his son, Joseph, Marshall is not the story of the first black Supreme Court justice’s entire life. The movie takes place decades before Marshall was ever nominated to the court. Instead, Marshall provides a snapshot of young Thurgood through the course of the Connecticut trial of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who was arrested in 1940 for the rape, kidnapping and attempted murder of his white boss, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Marshall, at the time an attorney in the NAACP’s civil rights division and seven years out of Howard University School of Law, travels to Connecticut to defend Spell. When the white judge presiding over the case refuses to let Marshall be the lead lawyer on the case, Marshall enlists a local Jewish attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), as the puppet for his legal ventriloquism. Marshall feeds Friedman his strategy, arguments and ideas and sits on his hands as he watches Friedman clumsily make his way through them.

Hudlin ends the film with an image of Marshall after he’s pulled into a train station in the Deep South. A mischievous smile creeping across his face, he grabs a paper cup to get a drink of water from a whites-only water fountain. Marshall tips his hat to an older black gentleman who’s watching, clearly astonished, and continues on his way.

The scene exposes how Marshall is more of an exercise in reflecting contemporary black attitudes about race and rebellion than it is connected to the way Marshall enacted that rebellion in his life as an NAACP lawyer, solicitor general under Lyndon Johnson, and then as a member of the Supremes. It’s certainly ahistorical. The real Marshall was a skilled politician, which made him an effective courtroom lawyer. He was charmingly persuasive, according to those who knew him, able to persuade white Southerners to do his bidding even against the wishes of fire-breathing racist sheriffs.

“He wasn’t an activist or a protester. He was a lawyer,” Marshall’s NAACP colleague, attorney Jack Greenberg, said in a 1999 documentary that asserts Marshall always followed the rules of the segregated South during his many trips there.

In any fictive portrait based on true life, a certain amount of interpretation is expected. But Marshall fundamentally changes our understanding of Marshall as a person and a real-life superhero. Thanks to accounts from family, colleagues and biographers such as Juan Williams, we know Marshall was smart, strategic and conscious of preserving his life and safety so that he could live to fight another day.

Hudlin superimposes modern conceptions of black heroism onto a period courtroom drama. He’s not the first to do so, of course. Both the 2016 adaptation of Roots and the now-canceled WGN series Underground told historical stories calibrated for a modern audience that wants and deserves to see black characters exhibit agency over their fates. Combined with the decision to cast the dark-skinned Boseman and Keesha Sharp as Marshall and his wife, Buster, Hudlin’s choices feel reactive to the colorism and racism in modern Hollywood. That choice ends up flattening an aspect of Marshall that certainly had an effect on his life: his privilege as a light-skinned, wavy-haired lawyer who grew up as the middle-class son of a Baltimore woman with a graduate degree from Columbia and a father who worked as a railway porter.

If ever there was a couple who fit the profile of the black bourgeoisie, it was Thurgood and Buster Marshall. Casting Boseman and Sharp may be a way to thumb one’s nose at the screwed-up obsession with skin tone that pervaded the black elite in the early 20th century and continues to block opportunities in modern-day Hollywood, but it also erases part of our understanding of how Marshall moved through the world.

Marshall possessed a terrific legal mind and used it to hold the country accountable to its founding ideals. He was a pioneer for daring to think that equality could be achieved by challenging the country’s institutions, but he also expressed a deep reverence for and faith in them. He would have been seen by whites in the South as a Northern agitator, and he knew it — the real Thurgood slept with his clothes on in case a lynch mob decided to confront him in the middle of the night. Altering Marshall so much in a movie meant to celebrate him ends up cheapening the gesture. It’s like making a biopic about Barack Obama and turning him into Jesse Jackson. He just wasn’t that type of dude.

It wouldn’t matter so much that Boseman’s Marshall strays so far from the real man if it wasn’t for the fact that Marshall tends to exist now mostly as a Black History Month factoid (even though multiple biographies have been written about his life and work).

Thurgood, a 2011 HBO movie starring Laurence Fishburne, goes too far in the opposite direction. Clips of Fishburne show a stiff and overly reverential character better suited for a museum video re-enactment or a Saturday Night Live sketch.

I sound like the story of Thurgood Marshall is a Goldilocks conundrum. Fishburne-as-Marshall was too stiff. Boseman-as-Marshall was too loose. Maybe a third attempt will get it just right.

Every time I see a film by a black director or that stars black people and I love it unreservedly, I experience a mélange of awe, reverence and respect that comes from witnessing an amazing work of art. And then comes the wave of relief.

Because the stakes are so high — every so-called “black film” must succeed to secure another! — you feel some kind of way about having to type all the reasons a film doesn’t work, knowing that those words have consequences but still need to be expressed. In short, it’s the feeling of “I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win.”

I hate this feeling. If ever there was a selfish reason for wishing the film industry would hurry up and achieve racial and gender parity, this is it.


Hudlin’s directorial oeuvre is squarely commercial. His gaze is unfussy, with few stylistic flourishes, likely influenced by his past 15 years directing episodic television. His last movie was Wifey, a TV movie starring Tami Roman. His last feature was the 2002 romantic comedy Serving Sara, starring Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley, but he’s probably best known for Boomerang, House Party and The Ladies Man. Thus it’s no surprise that Hudlin directs Marshall as a crowd-pleaser, but the nuances of Marshall’s life get lost.

What’s disappointing about the way Marshall is translated for the big screen is that real-life heroes come in a variety of forms. They’re complicated. They’re not saintly, nor are they all hot-headed crusaders. And that’s OK.

One of the most admirable aspects of Loving was that it was a historical drama with the patience to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, portrayed by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, as the quiet, country people they were. They seem as unlikely a pair to make civil rights history in the film as they were when they lived. But Loving came from the Focus Features division of NBCUniversal, a production house known for unconventional work. Marshall is not an art house film, and I don’t think it needed to be to tell Marshall’s story. Hidden Figures was another historical drama meant for wide consumption. It’s not perfect, but Hidden Figures was so full of charm that it overcame the white saviorism added to Kevin Costner’s character, which didn’t exist in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book.

The shortcomings that separate Marshall from Hidden Figures and Loving are the same ones that give it the feeling of a TV movie. Aside from focusing on one specific area of Marshall’s life rather than the whole of it, Marshall does little to escape or subvert some of the most irritating biopic tropes.

For instance, the screenwriters jam Boseman’s mouth full of exposition about his accomplishments rather than demonstrating them. He rattles them off to Friedman in the form of a verbal resume.

The movie includes a nightclub scene that functions as little more than a non sequitur to shout, “HEY, THURGOOD MARSHALL WAS FRIENDS WITH ZORA NEALE HURSTON AND LANGSTON HUGHES. DID YOU KNOW ZORA AND LANGSTON HAD AN ICY RELATIONSHIP? BECAUSE WE DID!”

The three aren’t around long enough to discuss anything substantive. Their interaction doesn’t serve as foreshadowing for some other part of the movie. They’re just there because they all lived in Harlem. It’s little more than fat to be trimmed in a nearly two-hour movie.

But the most obvious weak point may lie in the flashbacks to the interactions between Strubing and Spell, which are filled with so much melodrama that they’d be perfectly at home on Lifetime. It’s not that those tropes don’t have their place. It’s just not on a screen that’s 30 feet high.

Boseman, as watchable as ever, makes Marshall a winking, confident wisecracker with a disarming smile. He’s full of smarts and bravado, communicating the real off-hours aspects of Marshall’s ribald sense of humor.

In the future, though, I hope screenwriters and filmmakers have more faith in the capacity of audiences to appreciate all kinds of heroes. As tempting as it is to superimpose modern politics onto historical figures, it can be more edifying to simply let them breathe so that we can appreciate their efforts within the context of their own times. Such context allows us to more fully understand the cost of their struggles and celebrate them all the more for winning.

‘Crown Heights’ — a story of wrongful conviction that plays it too safe Stories of black men victimized by the prison system have their tropes, but the characters here don’t feel real

Six years into a 21-year stay in a New York state prison, Colin Warner, the lead character of the new film Crown Heights, is writing a letter.

“Most prisoners know deep down they put themselves here,” he writes. “But I don’t have that comfort.”

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights uses a 2005 This American Life episode as the basis for its story, charting Warner’s path from freedom to state-sanctioned captivity to freedom once again. The real-life story is harrowing: Brooklyn, New York, police badgered witnesses into falsely fingering Warner for a crime he didn’t commit, and prosecutors used the alternative facts squeezed from those compromised teenage witnesses to send an innocent man to prison for second-degree murder. Once there, he ended up spending more time behind bars than the man who actually committed the crime.

Transposed to a feature-length film, however, Warner’s story loses its gasp-worthy qualities. The film just isn’t biting enough to make Warner a mascot for the race-based injustice that pervades the American criminal justice system.

Instead, it’s a series of prison tropes held together with flashbacks and news clips of American presidents espousing how tough they are on crime. We see Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) struggle to comprehend the loss of agency over his own body as he’s checked into prison, and how he discovers every friendly gesture from a fellow prisoner carries a price. Crown Heights follows Warner’s life from the day he was arrested in 1980 until the day he’s finally released but does little to advance the narrative that black men are systematically victimized by mass incarceration.

Perhaps that’s because Warner, who is West Indian, doesn’t connect his plight with that of American-born black men. If that’s the case, Crown Heights doesn’t effectively communicate that point, and the clearest indication that it’s trying to is the one line from Warner’s letter about prisoners knowing that they put themselves upstate.

Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner and Natalie Paul as Antoinette in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

We see Warner enter a relationship with a woman, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), whom he eventually marries while imprisoned. But lost are the details that would illustrate how their relationship went from platonic to sexual. Why does Antoinette like Colin so much? What does she feel about him, aside from anguish and pity about his imprisonment? It’s almost impossible to say, because we don’t see it. What’s missing are the small, intimate events of daily life that can slow a film down but are necessary for viewers to connect with its characters.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

Former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, husband of actress Kerry Washington, co-stars as Carl King, Warner’s friend who never stops working to exonerate him. We see King’s wife get frustrated that King is dedicating so many resources to freeing his friend that he stops paying attention to his own family. But it’s tough to get a sense of how all of these figures are coping with their lots. In the course of making too many safe choices, Crown Heights ends up not saying much at all.

As with previous roles in Short Term 12 and Get Out, much of what Stanfield brings to the screen he communicates through his eyes. Stanfield’s presence introduces a sense of calm and introspection when everything around him is clearly unstable, but Asomugha doesn’t provide enough of a contrast for Stanfield’s quiet suffering.

The story of Colin Warner is a tale of someone’s humanity being disregarded and discarded. Yet Crown Heights fails to push past that initial hook to communicate much else. The inclusion of Clinton, Bush and Reagan is a start, but Ruskin fails to connect their tough-on-crime policies to Warner’s life. In the film’s last political interlude, when the audience has been primed to expect to see the face of George H. W. Bush, Ruskin uses footage of New York Gov. George Pataki instead. This decision only muddles the message. Are these powerful white men responsible for Warner’s imprisonment, or are they mile markers for the time he’s served? Or both?

There are few conclusions to draw from the film aside from “wrongful imprisonment is bad” — and, well, that should be obvious. It’s a shame that beyond that, Crown Heights doesn’t have a whole lot to say.