November 17, 2017 – This harrowing, intense, searing movie about two families bound together by land, war and poverty in rural Mississippi in the middle of the 20th Century is both foreign and familiar. Most of all, it is powerful. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan.
The story begins around 1941 and weaves in and out of World War II. Bilked out of his money in a shady real estate deal, Henry McAllan (played by Jason Clarke of “Everest”) ends up dragging his wife and children to his father's run down farm (his father, Pappy McAllan, is played by Jonathan Banks of “Identity Thief”). Henry's wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan of “Suffragette”) is appalled by the terrible living conditions on the farm, but dutifully carries on the best she can.
Laura can only be pushed so far, however, she is occasionally defiant, and one of those times is the first day on the farm when she informs her husband that there is one piece of civilization she will not give up, her piano. It stays, and Pappy will just have to go sleep in the dirt floored lean to.
The tennant farmers on this farm, the Jacksons, headed up by the strong, upright Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan of “Pariah”) and his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige, who also co-wrote and sang the moving song “Mighty River” on this film's soundtrack) and his oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell of “Straight Outta Compton”).
Anyone who has the notion that farming is noble and romantic will have that idea challenged by this movie, which shows men and women struggling to scratch out a living against indifferent, unforgiving, sometimes hostile, land and weather, slogging through seemingly endless mud.Writer and director Dee Rees (“Pariah” and “Bessie”) drew upon her own family's background to inform this tale of two families as did one of the film's stars, Jason Mitchell, whose own family came from the Louisiana, where the film was shot. The authenticity of this film is palpable. This film, one of the year's best, is powerfully written, directed and acted.
Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund of “Unbroken”) goes off to war to become a bomber pilot and Ronsel goes off to war to become a sergeant and tank commander. When Hap tells Pappy McAllan that his son is a tank commander, Pappy can't believe that America would put such valuable equipment in the hands of a Negro. He refuses to believe it. He would have had an even harder time believing the stories about the famed Tuskeegee Airmen (one of whom appears in a battle scene) but Jamie saw them with his own eyes.
After the war, Jamie, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, bonds with Ronsel, another veteran who understands what Jamie is going through. Ronsel has a tough time readjusting to life in the South, after being regarded as an equal, and a liberator, by some Europeans. Such a relationship now is dangerous for Ronsel, but the two become friends anyway. But Jamie also has feelings for his brother's wife, and she for him, an even more dangerous situation. What could possibly go wrong?
The volatile combination of romance, racism and PTSD bubbles up into high drama and tragedy. But there is also strength and hope in these people. Hap and Florence Jackson are strong, steady people, who, against all that racism and oppression, still struggle on, with hope their children will have a better future. In a telling scene, Hap tells his children not to make fun of his daughter's dream of becoming a stenographer.
The strength of these people reminded me of Ma Joad's speech in “The Grapes of Wrath.” She said:
“Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin.' We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people.”
Hap, who preaches in a ramshackle church on Sundays, picks a fitting scripture, from Job 14, to recite over the final resting place, next to a slave's grave, of the hateful old man, Pappy McAllan:
“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. And dost thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee? For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.”
Ah, if only racism had died out with Pappy, but it lives on, creating the need for people to carry signs saying “Black Lives Matter” in many places where they don't really matter. This story is from the past, but the past is never really gone. The echoes of this time live on. The KKK and the neo-Nazis are on the rise again, supported by those in the highest, most exalted places in the land. But those rich folks, and their tainted seed, will die out. The people will live on. This film will also live on. It rates an A.
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