Not Rated. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
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 doth thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee?
Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one…
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.
Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground;
Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.
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.
Job 14:1-4;8-12 (KJV)
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:2b
Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
This powerful Netflix drama shows why Martin Luther King, Jr. was so necessary for our nation—and why we all, whites and blacks, should join together in celebrating “his day.” Though set in Mississippi during the early 1940’s, the film is very relevant today not only because of the resurgence of racism, but also because of its relevance to the #MeToo Movement—the film’s director is Dee Rees, black and female. Two of the film’s characters emerge as strong women pushing against a patriarchal system designed to force them to submit to the will of their husbands. (There is a scene in which the husband quotes a Scripture passage about husbands having authority over their wives, but the wife fires back with another passage in praise of women, “A good wife, who can find…”)
The director, working with Virgil Williams, whose script is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel, probes the dangerous relationships between members of a white and a black family in Mississippi’s Delta south of Greenville during and right after World War Two. Not since the Danny Glover film Freedom Song has the pre-Civil Rights Bill (1965) plight of ordinary African Americans been explored in such detail.
The metaphorical significance of the film’s title begins with a bookend sequence in which two brothers are digging a grave as a storm engulfs them. It is for their deceased father Pappy. The hole is so deep and filling up with rain and mud that the younger brother Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) needs the help of his brother Henry (Jason Clarke) to climb out of it. The next day the two men struggle with ropes to carry the heavy wooden coffin from the nearby house across the muddy yard to the grave. A mule-drawn wagon with the African American Jackson family is passing by. Henry calls over to the driver Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) to come and lend them a hand. It is not a request, but a command.
Hap does not reply, nor do his sullen looking family. In between this and its repetition at the climax of the film there is a series of flashbacks, narrated by several of the characters, that provide the reasons why Hap is so reluctant to comply.
Laura McAllan tells us how in Memphis she had been resigned at the age of 31 to stay with her parents as a virgin spinster, but then she had met Henry. Theirs was not a passionate romance, but she married him anyway. Upon meeting his younger brother Jamie, it is apparent that there is more chemistry between the two of them, but with the outbreak of World War Two, temptation is removed when he joins the Army Air Force as a bomber pilot. Not very successful in Memphis, Henry decides to buy a 200-acre cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. The deal had been completed before Laura learns about the change, so she is not pleased by the move. She is even less so when they arrive at the house he thought he had bought in the nearby town, only to discover the seller had cheated him by selling it to someone else—and his deal with Henry had been sealed by a handshake, not paperwork. They have to drive out into the country and make do with the rundown farm house, surrounded by a lawn of mud.
The Jackson family had once owned the land. But then a powerful white man had torn up the deed and taken over the land. Hap muses, “What good is a deed? My grandfathers and great uncles, grandmothers and great aunts, father and mother, broke, tilled, thawed, planted, plucked, raised, burned, broke again. Worked this land all they life, this land that never would be theirs. They worked until they sweated. They sweated until they bled. They bled until they died. Died with the dirt of this same 200 acres under their fingernails. Died clawing at the hard, brown back that would never be theirs. All their deeds undone. Yet this man, this place, this law… say you need a deed. Not deeds.”
Now making a living as a sharecropper, Hap and his family are eating dinner when there is a loud knock on his door. A tell-tale sign of the unknown dangers the family lives under is Hap’s picking up his machete on his way to opening the door. It is Henry, his family and furnishings still in the truck they have driven down in. Never even thinking of the inconvenience, the white man demands that Hap come and help them unload their furnishings. Hap can only say, “Yes sir.” This will be the first of many such interruptions and demands, including later one generated by Laura’s need during a bout of illness, when Florence Jackson’s (Mary J Blige) services as a midwife and healer are called for.
We go back and forth between the two families. At one point Laura says, “When I think of the farm, I think of mud. I dreamed in brown.” Only on Saturdays, bath day, does she feel clean. She reflects that “violence is part and parcel of country life,” with death everywhere—” Dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums,” and more. Hap works for Henry during the week and is a lay preacher on Sundays at a tiny half-finished church. We see in the service that he is not one of the all too typical “pie in the sky” preachers, but one who looks for a change for the better in their own life time, thus refusing to accept things as they are. Breaking into song, with the congregation joining in, we see how music, as well as the Bible and preaching, sustain his oppressed people.
After the McAllan’s hear President Roosevelt’s reading the declaration of war, Jamie is soon flying his B-25 over Europe dropping bombs on German cities and undergoing attacks by Nazi fighter planes. The Jackson’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) also is in Europe, but not digging ditches or loading supplies like most “Negro” soldiers. Instead, he finds himself rising to the rank of Sergeant, in command of one of the tanks in a segregated corps under Gen. Patton’s command. Both soldiers see good friends killed by enemy fire, with Jamie especially traumatized. These combat episodes are skillfully interwoven with scenes of the two families on the home front. One sequence in which Hap falls and breaks his leg is paired with a violent one on the battlefield involving the death of some of Ronsel’s friends. We also see several scenes in which the black soldier, accepted on a basis of equality by Europeans, engaged in a love affair with a German woman.
After the war an unusual friendship develops between Jamie and Ronsel because each is still suffering from the trauma of battle. Ronsel carries the additional burden of racial hatred—before even getting back to his parents’ home, the uniformed black man stops by the general store to buy presents, and Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks) refuses to let the black men leave by the front door. Changed from the usual compliant black by his taste of equality in a Europe where he even had left a white lover, Ronsel gives way only because the soft-spoken Henry intervenes. Later, when he ducks to the street pavement because he mistakes an auto backfire for a gunshot, the bystanders stare, but Ronsel rushes and helps him pick up the items he had dropped. The black man shows by his own shaking hands that he too is afflicted by battle fatigue. Ronsel is as slow to accept a ride from his fellow vet as he is his friendship. He is worried about the public reaction to any sign of friendship between a white and a black, even if his self-assured friend is not. Nonetheless, when riding in the McAllan truck together, Jamie goes along with Ronsel’s ducking down to avoid being seen. Pappy does catch a glimpse of the passenger, and there is hell to pay for his grandson.
The friends share the white man’s whiskey flask, and as they grow closer, they exchange stories of their war-time experiences, something they could do with no one else. One day Jamie asks, “You ever miss it sometimes? Being over there. I don’t mean being shot at, but sometimes, I actually miss it.” Ronsel replies, “Yeah, me, too. Over there, I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us. Throwing flowers and cheering. And here I’m just another nigger pushing a plow.”
I love Jamie’s reply to Ronsel’s question of why he does not share the prejudice of his family and townsfolk. We see the conclusion of an earlier flashback in which Jamie’s co-pilot and gunners are killed by attacking Nazi Messerschmitts. He thinks he will be next, but then the attacks suddenly stop. He sees a squadron of P-51s driving the Germans away. One of them flies alongside his B-25 for a moment. The first thing he notices is the fighter plane’s tail is a bright red. The second he can hardly believe—the pilot is black! He sees the pilot salute him, and just as the smaller plane turns and flies away, Jamie returns it. (This, of course, is one more of the hundreds of incidents in which the famous African American squad, trained at Tuskegee, came to the rescue of Allied bombers. Their story is well told in two films, The Tuskegee Airmen and Red Tails.)
There are many other incidents involving Laura and Florence, each suffering and growing as the film progresses, the two getting to know each other when Florence reluctantly goe to work for the McAllans. However, these are overshadowed by what happens to the two sons and their doomed inter-racial friendship.
The story moves forward with a sense of dread, much like a Greek tragedy, with the inevitable coming of the Klan seizing and trussing up Ronsel cruciform-like in a barn. Pappy is one of the ring leaders, forcing Jamie to make a soul-wrenching decision about the fate of his friend. The racists at first are just angry over the friendship, but after discovering the letter that Ronsel has received from his German bride and the enclosed photograph of their little son, their anger morphs into rage. The horrible, tragic deed that follows makes this a film not fit for most children younger than teenagers—and yet, despite this, the story ends on a note of hope. Indeed “love” is one of the last words that we hear spoken at the happy conclusion. Prejudice and hatred have their way for a time, but not the last word.
There is also a second tragedy that might escape some viewers because they will think the man deserves his fate—that of the grandfather Pappy. This vicious racist is depicted with no redeeming features, his twisted values and mean spirit alienating even his two sons. His sudden death stains Jamie’s soul, a burden the young man will carry to his grave. At Pappy’s grave Hap recites the above words from Job. Note that they are of despair, written long ago by a man when the Hebrews believed that death has the final word, very unlike the words of resurrection from the Gospel of John that we usually hear in a movie funeral. Pappy lived in hatred, died in hatred, and will remain dead in his hatred. Hap seems to be saying this when he uses only this quotation. I doubt that older son Henry understood this at the time, but maybe someday he will.
I cannot recommend this film enough, especially as I finish this review less than a week before the celebration of the life and work Martin Luther King, Jr. Because the intent of the filmmakers is in agreement with him, I will let Dr. King have the last word here: “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the February issue of Visual Parables.