The title of this film suggests its thesis: that black and white families are stuck in their moment in the post-war Mississippi Delta.
Its opening scene, the burial of a white family’s elderly father, is the same as the final scene. It is not giving away too much to say that what happens in the interim suggests that change may come to the Jim Crow south, but not soon.
The story contrasts two families.
The first is the McAllans, Henry and Laura. Henry, an engineer, announces one day that he has bought a farm and they are leaving Laura’s hometown. When they arrive, they move with Henry’s difficult father and Laura’s piano into a shack without indoor plumbing.
The other family are Hap and Florence Jackson, black sharecroppers and their children, all descendants of generations who have worked cotton fields with never a chance to own land themselves.
Laura and Henry MacAllan try to get along, but they are not well-met and the household tension is palpable, particularly as Henry becomes frustrated by the challenges of farming.
The Jacksons face much more external peril but have responded with deep commitment to each other and their children, and with lived Christian belief that offers solace and the promise of eventual justice.
This background is sketched efficiently in the film’s early scenes, which are beautifully filmed and enhanced with off-stage narratives by the characters.
Then comes World War II. Henry McAllan’s younger brother, Jamie, goes to Europe and is a bomber pilot. The Jacksons’ oldest son, Ronsel, rises to become a battalion sergeant in George Patton’s army. Both survive, but each is a changed man when he gets back to Mississippi.
The two veterans find they have much in common, and they form a friendship that is both guarded and not received well in the unchanged community. Local suspicion and a perhaps too convenient plot point provoke an event of Southern Gothic horror that I found painful to watch. (And yes, my discomfort must have been less than that of black audience members.)
Eventually the sun rises, sort of, but the two veterans have learned that, in the late 1940s American South, Thomas Wolfe was right: You can’t go home again.
Much is being made of the casting of hip hop artist Mary J. Blige as Florence Jackson, and Blige’s performance here is excellent. But, to be fair, all the acting in this movie is excellent. Blige also wrote and sings a beautiful song, “Mighty River,” that runs as the film’s credits roll.
Dee Rees, the director of the movie, is a Nashville native of considerable talent. She’s also a great interview subject.
Netflix funded the movie, which is getting a brief theatrical run, presumably to qualify for Oscar consideration. Soon you will be able to stream it at home.