In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees


The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.


Pick of the Litter – November 2017


Justice League

(Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller. With Superman seemingly out of the picture and an alien threat putting Earth squarely in the crosshairs, Bruce Wayne aka the Batman sets out to unite the most powerful beings on Earth to fight this threat but without the Last Son of Krypton, what chance do they have? Continuing events set in motion with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the DCEU continues to evolve. November 17


The Light of the Moon

(Imagination Worldwide) Stephanie Beatriz, Michael Stahl-David, Conrad Ricamora, Catherine Curtin. After a young woman is sexually assaulted on her way home, she finds every aspect of her life changing from her success as an architect to her relationship with her boyfriend. As she struggles to find a way to find intimacy and regain her sense of self she finds that the strongest obstacles are often the people who mean the most in this particularly timely drama. November 1


Blade of the Immortal

(Magnet) Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara. A legendary samurai is cursed with immortality after a crucial battle. Doomed to wander the earth, he knows he must kill enough evil in the world to regain his soul. Haunted by the brutal murder of his sister, he meets a young girl whose own family was slaughtered by a ruthless swordsman. He agrees to be her bodyguard and take on the murderer. This is the latest movie from iconic Japanese director Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer) – his 100th feature, an astonishing number to say the least. November 3

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

(Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage. A woman grieving the loss of a murdered daughter grows impatient with the local police department which has yet to solve the crime. In order to spur them on, she puts up a series of billboards near her home in Missouri asking why there has been no progress on the case. The results cause fireworks in her community, making her a hero to some and a pariah to others. There is buzz that McDormand has a good shot at an Oscar nomination for her performance here. November 10


(Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell. Two men from rural Mississippi return home from World War II to find that nothing much has changed but that they themselves have. One, an African-American, finds that the country he put his life on the line for despises him for the color of his skin; the other, a white man, wonders if he can ever go back to the way things used to be. November 17

Brimstone & Glory

(Oscilloscope) Viktor Jakovlevski. One of the most unusual and dangerous celebrations on Earth is the National Pyrotechnic Festival in the village of Tultepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. During the 10 day celebration, elaborate fireworks displays are set off but not just high into the air; fireworks are shot everywhere and at everything. People – mostly men – dance among the fireworks and while some get severely burned, there is a religious ecstasy that is fascinating and beautiful to watch. November 22

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

(Zeitgeist/Kino-Lorber) Hedy Lamarr, Diane Kruger, Robert Osborne, Mel Brooks. Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful women in the world and a major Hollywood star. Admired for her classical good looks, she eventually faded from notoriety as she got older as is wont to happen with actresses who have the temerity to age. However, behind the beauty was brilliance – Lamarr was responsible for inventing the technology that made GPS, secure Wi-Fi and Bluetooth possible but nobody would believe at the time someone so good looking could possibly be so smart. November 24