Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 2017. Armory Films, ArtImage Entertainment, Black Bear Pictures, Elevated Films, MACRO, MMC Joule Films, Zeal Media. Screenplay by Virgil Williams, Dee Rees, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan. Cinematography by Rachel Morrison. Produced by Carl Effenson, Sally Jo Effenson, Cassian Elwes, Christopher Lemole, Charles D. King, Kim Roth, Tim Zajaros. Music by Tamar-kali. Production Design by David J. Bomba. Costume Design by Michael T. Boyd. Film Editing by Mako Kamitsuna. Academy Awards 2017. Golden Globe Awards 2017. Gotham Awards 2017. Independent Spirit Awards 2017. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
A Memphis woman (Carey Mulligan) verging on spinsterhood marries a solid if not particularly exciting man (Jason Clarke) and they have two children before he makes the rash decision to buy a farm in his home state of Mississippi and moves them there. The farm they buy has a family of tenant farmers headed by Rob Morgan and a remarkably effective Mary J. Blige, who are both hoping that the relative stability they have achieved will get them to a better place if they can just keep working their land. This land, though, is the segregated south of the 1940s, and the customs of the society they live in is probably the only thing that drags them down more than the endless wet mud that makes their lives a hell to endure. Clarke and Mulligan are poor and struggle to make for a decent existence, but the sharecroppers are always kept a step below by the era of “Jim Crow” laws, sowing the seeds for crisis when Clarke’s brother (Garrett Hedlund) and Morgan and Blige’s eldest son (Jason Mitchell) return from serving in World War II and their friendship brings negative attention and, eventually, violence. Elegant, languid direction and terrific performances are combined with an uncompromising vision of the ugliest realities of the world this film takes place in, providing the elements for sweeping epic that saves its most devastating moments for its unforgettable conclusion. The narrative could use some tightening, it’s hard to find the story’s centre and the Faulkner-esque narration is superfluous and sometimes confusing (which combined with perpetually dark cinematography can make for some genuine frustration), but the best moments hit deep satisfaction (I could watch Blige snatch letters out of people’s hands all day) and director Dee Rees puts as much emphasis on moments of connection and compassion as she does enmity and conflict for rich results.