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Netflix has caused quite a fair bit of controversy over their distribution of acclaimed films recently and it's pretty easy to see why. A prime case study to explore this is Dee Rees's splendid adaptation of Hillary Jordan's Mudbound, which with Netflix's best efforts, garnered four Academy Award Nominations, but failed to claim any prize on the night and unfairly failed to gain a best picture nomination over the lame filler Darkest Hour. Filled with amazing performances, a timely presence with relevant social commentary and beautiful imagery in the deep south of America, realised by Rees and director of photography Rachel Morrison—who made history by becoming the first female cinematographer to be nominated for an Academy Award. Much was said about singer Mary J. Blige's acting breakthrough, yet she never achieved the sort of hype Lady Gaga has found with A Star Is Born, even with the admittedly more challenging performance she gives and the two Oscar nominations she received for Best Original Song and Best Supporting Actress. Blige was the sole acting nomination Mudbound received, even though the film boasts such a talented ensemble with no weak links and Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, and the unjustly underrated Carey Mulligan being standouts with thoughtful and emotionally resonant performances that affect us as viewers.
They are accompanied by a vast narrative that explores the experiences of two families of different class and ethnicity in the South during the Second World War. Although a historical epic in some sense the film is in no way dated as the racist views of Jonathan Banks's Pappy, sadly representing a still prominent voice in contemporary society that the recent excellent Blackkklansman covers with great effect—and hopefully will receive the level of attention Mudbound should have earned from the Academy. The various conflicts and troubles both families face are incredibly compelling with the only criticism I can think of being that the multiple perspectives the novel has are not quite as fully realised as they are in prose, but this is often the case with adaptations. Mullgan's Laura is the character with the most of her story stripped as even though her marital dissatisfaction is portrayed with authenticity, her views on race are very watered down and some of her passages in the book detailing her complicit racism would have certainly further enhanced the themes of the film. Tensions between the two families gradually build in the midst of the forbidden friendship between Jaime and Ronsel as accomplished yet troubled white and black soldiers who find common ground in their difficulties to readjust in a society that neglects both of their issues. Ronsel resents the disrespect he still receives from bigoted white men even after his brave military efforts and it's the same men who neglect Jaime's emotional problems and post-traumatic stress disorder after the disturbing reality he has faced during his time of service. The long simmering conflicts between each of the characters build to a violent and distressing climax that shocks and angers us for the immense injustice of the actions that take place in the bruising final act. Yet even after this tragedy the final words spoken in the multiple voice-overs (used to great effect throughout the film) leave us with an undeterred spirit similar to those onscreen and makes us hopeful for that the author's statements about a sequel will in fact become a reality as these characters' lives would not fail to be compelling.
For all its brilliance, Mudbound never made it to a general wide release in the cinemas, and I find this immensely disheartening and to be frank, quite baffling. I like the idea of Netflix supporting auteur-led films that give an honest and emotionally resonant viewing experience, but these films are clearly made to be seen in the cinema with the amazing visuals that they bolster. I appreciate that the amount of subscribers means that films released on Netflix have a chance to be seen by a truly mass audience, but it's reductive in making films more suited to home-viewing rather than putting them where they should be. Actually releasing these films for longer in the cinema is something they are apparently considering with critical darling "Roma"—yet they wouldn't do the same for Mudbound or for Annihilation, which with its high budget and deeply strange storytelling would have made for an interesting cinematic experience if it were ever granted the opportunity here in the UK. Overall, watching Mudbound is a transfixing and emotional experience that deserved, but was denied, the biggest screens to tell its story.