USA (134 mi) 2017 ‘Scope d: Dee Rees
They’re just gonna win every time.
—Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan)
A blistering portrait of the Jim Crow South, yet also an excruciatingly slow-paced film that feels mired in the misery of being dirt poor farmers in the Mississippi Delta region following the Great Depression, adapted from the Hillary Jordan novel of 2006, emblematic of John Ford’s equally dour The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which was itself an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s infamous Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Receiving a standing ovation at the Sundance premiere, this openly wears its heart on its sleeve, unfortunately, and is a more difficult film than it might appear, which includes how difficult it is just to find this film, screening for a single week in an obscure suburban theater in Chicago, otherwise only available to Netflix subscribers. Using an unusual technique of introducing multiple characters through their own inner narration, the film balances a searing realism with a kind of inner poetry, offering different points of view, often altering our perceptions, as mouths are not necessarily in synch with the words being spoken, or musical interludes include the sounds of spirituals or quiet piano music, adding a hint of illusion to an otherwise reality-based film. What this does is add a uniquely different sensory element to what we are watching, like the effect of music often transcending what we see, providing an alternate reality that is closer in spirit to the emotional realm being depicted. The first half of the film sets up what happens long afterwards, as the central conflict takes over an hour to finally appear onscreen, with hints left along the roadside to help viewers find their way. The film is an intersection of two proud families, one white and one black, initially revealing different customs, family bonds, and familial expression, revealing how they are uniquely and societally different, including their reaction to racial slurs and personal indignities, with the camera adding a black perspective inside their home when unwelcome white visitors arrive at their door, never with good news, personalizing the arrogance of white privilege, never questioning the system that keeps blacks down, as everything must come to a stop to appease the white folks, with both sides showing signs of empathy, which becomes a crime that must be ruthlessly punished in Jim Crow Mississippi, eventually becoming a full-fledged drama about grotesque race hatred and savagely inflicted KKK violence in the Deep South, showing its pronounced impact on both families, each torn apart in ways they could never anticipate. Much like Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015), the finale feels more imaginary than real, evading historical realities with a dreamlike sequence, creating an alternate epilogue that feels much more hopeful and optimistic, which appears to be a present day viewpoint tacked onto an earlier historical time period when a more dire outcome would have been inevitable. That being said, this is a fictional view of one of America’s most deep-seeded problems which has its origins in the slave trade, where for hundreds of years no one lifted a muscle to stop the inherent cruelty of treating blacks as an inferior subspecies of the white race. Mind you, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, millions today currently believe in the superiority of the white race (from a recent poll in 09/2017, more than 2.5 million, or about 8% of the U.S. population currently believes in white nationalism, while 100 million, or 31% believe “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage,” from Most Americans Oppose White Supremacists, But Many Share Their ...).
The opening burial sequence in a deluge of rain is eye-opening for its minimalist suggestion, showing the tenuous line between life and death, and just how easily it can be broached. It is a parable for the larger story ahead, serving as a cautionary warning. Initially we are introduced to Laura (Carey Mulligan), an intelligent and well-read woman in her early 30’s from Memphis, Tennessee, a city slicker with a cultivated taste, who plays the piano, for instance, but is still a virgin, suggesting the first man she meets will be the one, introduced by her brother to his boss, Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke), at a jazz club (with a distinctly American black origin), though he’s hardly a charmer, but he’s a forthright and upstanding man who pursues her, asking for her hand in marriage, so she obliges, preferring not to die a spinster. If their accents sound weirdly unsouthern, Mulligan is British while Clarke is Australian, never quite getting the inflections right. Henry has a brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) who is everything he’s not, handsome and charming, something of a ladies man, who frowns on his brother’s dreams to live close to the land. Coinciding with this romantic interlude is another close-knit black family arduously working the land headed by Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), a local preacher and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), along with their family. Hap angrily describes how easily blacks in Mississippi have been robbed of their own land, where deeds to property that took blood and sweat to accrue have simply been torn up by white families that basically took what they wanted, sending them away to fend for themselves. As sharecroppers, the land they work is not really theirs, but is a reminder of a debt they constantly owe white owners, having arrived at this plot of land where they have been tenant farmers since slavery days, still trying to pay off their debt, vowing one day to own their own land. Men exclusively make the decisions in these families, where out of the blue, Henry decides to tell his wife they’re moving to Mississippi, having bought some land there that he figures to farm. Swindled out of the initial home he thought they’d live in, they’re forced to move into a broken down shack, a rude introduction to a primitive life with holes in the roof and no electricity or indoor plumbing, forced to live under the same roof as Henry’s virulently racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), sharing the same farmland not far from where the Jacksons live. This common land is defined by a bridge into town that washes out when it rains, stranding the families in a sea of mud. Laura’s two children end up with whooping cough, sending for Florence to help nurse them back to health, offering her a regular job as their housekeeper afterwards. What’s painfully obvious is how Henry talks to Hap, always expecting he will obey his every request, as if their passive servitude is taken for granted. This dehumanization defines the times in Mississippi, as blacks who act otherwise typically end up dead.
Perhaps the one that has it worse is Vera (Lucy Faust), a white sharecropper neighbor who lives in the same extreme poverty as the blacks, living pitifully close to madness, as her marriage is in shambles, devastated by extreme deprivation. World War II calls two men into action, where Jamie becomes a decorated fighter pilot who completes harrowing bombing missions in Europe, while Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the oldest Jackson, drives a tank in an all-black military unit known as the Black Panthers serving under the command of General Patton, one of the most effective combat units in the war despite their segregated status away from white soldiers. Ronsel reveals that unlike back home, Europeans welcome blacks, where they are viewed as more human, including white women, thankful they are protecting their homes and communities, ending up in a relationship with Resl (Samantha Hoefer), a pretty German girl who welcomes him into her home. While obviously taking a toll on both men, both return home under differing circumstances, as Jamie is a war hero, but he’s jittery and drinks heavily covering up symptoms of trauma, while Ronsel has newly discovered confidence in himself, as he’s backed away from no one, standing up to all enemies that stood in their way. Upon returning back home to Mississippi, however, he’s just an n-word to the locals, who treat him as such, facing the same bigotry he’s known all his life. “Over there I was liberated…Here I’m just another nigger pushing a plow.” It’s Hap who tells his son not to stir up any resentment in white folks, to apologize even if he’s the harmed party, expressing the prophetic words, “they’re just gonna win every time.” However, Ronsel and Jamie hit it off, as a black pilot once saved his back in the air, showing gratitude afterwards, allowing Ronsel to ride in the front of his pickup truck, sharing a drink, where they can get personal and share stories, spending secret time together away from all the rest, actually developing an unlikely friendship with mutual respect. But this doesn’t go unnoticed, which does not bode well in this town, in this era, with the stench of blood and violence lingering in the air, where they are eventually outed by his own Pappy, who calls him a traitor and a “nigger lover.” This escalates into a full-scale KKK assault on both men, beaten and tied up by dozens of men in white hoods, with Ronsel stripped naked, facing the sadistic onslaught of racial hatred, which is an abomination from which there is no return. This level of cruelty is mirrored perhaps by the brutally harsh demands of the soil, creating a communal burden of unending poverty from harvesting cotton, a failed economy dependent upon slave labor, causing resentment towards blacks since the Confederacy days. Filming this untold story offers a window into our own depraved Jim Crow era history, which is especially relevant today with a President of the United States that refuses to condemn white supremacist groups, as a surge of white nationalists make up much of his support. Easily more ambitious than her earlier film, Pariah (2011), though not necessarily better, it has a broader historical reach and feels more impactive, though it still feels rough around the edges. Beautifully expressed in wide vistas and close-ups on worn out faces by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who also filmed Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013), where much of the raw material hits a nerve, but could use a subtler hand when it comes to achieving greater artistry.