I’d like to congratulate you on becoming the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography. Secondly, I’d like to offer you congratulations on the juggernaut success of Black Panther, the film you shot for Ryan Coogler. On the surface these two films couldn’t seem more different. Mudbound is the bleak tale of two families, one black and one white, struggling in post-WWII, segregated Mississippi. The other is an eye-popping, Marvel super-hero flick set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country in the world. But beyond your participation, these films share themes of racial inequality, family discord, and the complicated relationships between fathers and sons.
Though it’s a titch too early to entertain Black Panther’s 2019 Oscar chances ( or maybe not), your work in Mudbound is certainly deserving of its Academy recognition.
Mudbound is a modern American tragedy where none of the characters escape unscathed, and no good deed goes unpunished. When a film opens on a grave being dug in a rainstorm, it’s a fair bet that what is about to unfold will be bleak. But Mudbound delivers poetry within this bleakness. This poetry comes as much from your visuals as it does from words. Together the result is devastating. And yet, despite its emotional heft, it is never too much to bear. On the contrary, Mudbound is spellbinding.
Your research for Mudbound lead you to the Farm Security Administration photographers who captured a pictorial of American life between 1935-1944, particularly those photos which focused on the lives of sharecroppers in the South, and to the coloured photos from Gordon Parks’ Segregation Story. With these influences, you created a palette that marries the period realness with a dreamlike quality to give the characters a backdrop that is both grounded and hallucinatory. Their circumstances are painfully believable and yet feel like a grim fable brought to life.
And there’s mud. Oh, is there mud. It is literally and figuratively inescapable. It traps the characters and binds them like a blood tie - two families linked by mud. The McAllan family are the white landowners, and the Jackson family are their black tenants. The McAllan’s are a young family who are unprepared for the hardships they have inherited at the derelict family farm. Worse still, they are saddled with Henry McAllan’s racist, alcoholic father, and Henry’s brother Jamie, a pilot who has returned from the war with severe PTSD. Jamie finds a kinship with Ronsell, the Jackson’s eldest son and a returning war vet who found freedom from segregation in Europe but can’t escape racism in his home country. Their friendship, and the secrets between them, set the two families towards a heartbreaking conclusion.
This is the time of year when we hear the disingenuous phrase, “it’s just an honour to be nominated”, and I’m sure it is, though of course it’s better to win. But it’s impossible to win if you’re not nominated, kind of like your director, Dee Rees. Mudbound is her baby, and the fact that she wasn’t recognized by the Academy for her direction here stings. The saving grace is Rees shared nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (with co-writer Virgil Williams based on the novel by Hillary Jordan), a nomination she richly deserves. Mudbound has a tense energy that belies its laconic pace and sparse backdrop. The narration, delivered by not one but six separate voices, is a conceit that could have gone horribly wrong. But with a superb cast which includes Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan and Mary J, Blige (herself a Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Song nominee), Rees was able to navigate the story through their relationship to the land - the mud that connects them and threatens their entire existence.
As Black Panther’s critical and box office success continues to soar, on Sunday, when you might become the first ever female cinematographer to bring home the little golden man, it will be because you achieved your vision by firmly digging your heels into the mud.