Mudbound, Based on Novel by Wellesley Alumna, Earns Four Oscar Nominations

January 24, 2018
Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige as Florence Jackson in Mudbound.
Credit:
Netflix

The movie Mudbound, based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan ’84, was nominated Tuesday for four Academy Awards: supporting actress (Mary J. Blige), adapted screenplay (Virgil Williams and Dee Rees), original song (“Mighty River”), and cinematography (Rachel Morrison).

Morrison, director of photography for the film, made history by becoming the first woman to receive an Oscar nod for cinematography.

Jordan told Daily Shot writers she is thrilled about these nominations. “The filmmakers, cast, and crew put their hearts and souls into this film, and I could not be prouder of the result,” she said. “That Mudbound was directed, shot, edited, scored, and co-written by women only sweetens the well-deserved recognition.”

Mudbound (2008) was Jordan’s debut novel; the movie adaptation was directed by Dee Rees and released in November 2017 by Netflix. (Jordan, who had a 15-year career as an advertising copywriter before becoming a novelist, is also the author of When She Woke (2011) and a digital long short-story, Aftermirth.)

The story, set in 1946, depicts Americans’ ongoing struggles with bigotry through two southern farming families, one white, the other black. City-born and-bred Laura McAllan, who is white, is raising her children in a place she finds alien and threatening: her husband Henry’s Mississippi Delta farm. Her hateful father-in-law, Pappy, and her brother-in-law, Jamie McAllan, join them. Jamie is handsome and charming, but also haunted by his memories of combat.

The eldest son of black sharecroppers living on the McAllan farm, Ronsel Jackson has also come home from combat. But despite his courageous defense of his country, he’s still considered an inferior man in the Jim Crow South. The story centers on the improbable friendship between these two brothers-in-arms.

“This book is very personal to me,” Jordan told Daily Shot writers not long after the movie was released. “It’s based loosely on my grandparents’ life; they had a farm located in the Arkansas Delta that was in fact called Mudbound…and I grew up hearing about the farm. The story and characters are completely fictional, however.”

The movie got plenty of pre-Oscar buzz. The Washington Post named it the best film of the year, calling it “a quintessentially American classic.” Variety wrote, “Mudbound captures more than the usual amount of detail from its source material, including much of the language itself. Rees preserves Jordan’s strategy of spreading the narration between six different characters, three from each family. It’s a powerful equalizing device.”

Jordan admitted that she was a bit nervous about having her novel adapted for the big screen, but, she said, “I was thrilled about and grateful for the way everyone involved in the film treated the adaptation.”

She attended the world premiere of the film in January 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival. “When I first saw a story and characters that previously had existed in my mind come to life on the screen, I was overwhelmed with emotion; it was like a dream,” she said.

Jordan majored in English and political science at Wellesley. Her thesis advisor, Craig Murphy, Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science, told Daily Shot writers that he’s supervised dozens of international relations senior theses at Wellesley, but Jordan’s was the best: “She wrote a brilliant early critical study of the Camp David Process (which led to peace between Egypt and Israel), based on interviews with many of the key people who took part—an audacious thing for a college senior to do!” Murphy said Jordan shared early short stories and drafts of chapters of Mudbound with him. He calls the movie “spellbinding” and says it actually does justice to the novel.

Jordan credits her Wellesley education with helping to inspire her writing. “Wellesley is where I was born as a feminist,” she said. “And once I realized that I wanted to fight for women’s rights, I realized I wanted to fight for everyone’s rights. Wellesley…opened my eyes to inequality and opportunity. I write novels about social justice; Wellesley prepared me for those kinds of issues and encouraged me to become a passionate advocate for change.”

Mudbound won the 2006 Bellwether Prize for fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize debut novels about social justice. It also won an Alex Award from the American Library Association. PASTE magazine named it one of the top 10 debut novels of the decade.

The novel has been translated into multiple languages and has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. The book took Jordan six years to write; she started it while working on her MFA in creative writing at Columbia.

Learn more about Jordan and her work.