The racial divide in America is a terrible thing. There are countless examples of blacks being held to different standards than whites, both in general society and through the constructs of our legal system. When a black man jaywalks he runs the risk of being shot by police, while a white man who guns down mall shoppers is portrayed as a troubled lone wolf who needs mental health care.
Mudbound, the new movie from director Dee Rees, jumps back 70 years in America’s history to show just one example of how things vary greatly depending on the color of your skin. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, the story follows two soldiers returning home to Mississippi after serving in World War II. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is black and Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund) is white. Coming back to the Jim Crow South means means that despite both putting their lives on the line to protect the world from despotism, one is welcomed much more warmly than the other.
The first poster features the whole cast arrayed around the real estate of the image. Along with the cast list at the top and the prominent placement of the Netflix logo we also see the marks of TIFF and Sundance to tout the movie’s screenings at those festivals.
A series of character posters showed each individual up close in a grainy, high-resolution shot that showed the misery and despair on their faces along with the lines, dirt and sweat that comes with the lives each one leads. These are a stark collection that’s meant to evoke photos we’ve seen of people living through droughts and other events in this country.
The first trailer starts out with a Jamie hitting the dirt after hearing a car backfire, the after-effects of his time in the war. Ronsel helps him up and we see the Jim Crow-heavy world everyone’s living in, even Ronsel, who served his country in the war. Racial tensions impact everything and everyone, despite the fact that they’re all living in the same squalor and desperate conditions regardless of race.
The second trailer begins from the perspectives of the women who were left behind while their husbands went off to war. Those men, when they return, find a world that hasn’t changed to anyone but them. Jim Crow is still in place and there are still other dramas that are impacting everyday life and, it seems, those things are just always going to be so.
The movie is sold here more like a general drama than one that’s explicitly about race relations. Not that that’s unspoken or hidden, it’s just one part of a larger picture here where it’s been the focus in the other efforts. I don’t think that marks any great shift in strategy, just an evolution of messaging.
Online and Social
While, as usual, Netflix didn’t create an official website for the movie there were both Twitter and Facebook profiles. That may not seem like much but it’s more than is usually put in place and shows the commitment the company had to selling the movie more fully.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Online ads placed a few weeks prior to release used the key art showing the faces of the leads, with some including positive quotes from early festival reviews. There were also reports on Twitter that some TV spots were run but I’ve not been able to find them or otherwise confirm.
Media and Publicity
The first bit of publicity came when it was announced the movie would have its official premiere at Sundance 2017. The first look at the movie came shortly after that. That screening garnered a tidal wave of positive word-of-mouth, including speculation that the 2018 Oscar race was now official underway. Much of that praise was directed at director Rees, who talked about the story and why she opted to tell this story. And it stood out as one of a few movies taking a look at the toll of war on individuals. Netflix eventually bought distribution rights despite the steep asking price. The movie was then scheduled for a screening at the New York Film Festival, where Rees commented on how Netflix was an ideal creative partner because none of the other studios felt the movie was commercial enough to acquire and release.
Later on Rees talked about how she’s worked to position her career and the choices she’s made over the years that have impacted it, including a commitment to smaller movies that require passion, not studio gigs that come with big paychecks and lots of publicity.
Rees and others talked here about the movie’s early festival buzz, the potential for awards consideration and how long it took to find a distributor willing to pick it up. That last point, it turns out, was the result of the backlash to and disappointing results of The Birth of a Nation last year, which made some distributors gun-shy about signing on for a period movie dealing with racial issues. Oh, and there’s the fact that the story, which involves clashes with the KKK, is super-relevant today, which caused additional squeamishness.
There was also this group chat where Rees talked about what inspired the story and the cast talked about how shocked they were at the poor treatment of former soldiers. The movie was also announced as the opening night feature at AFI Fest. Another joint interview with Rees and members of the cast talked about the difficulty of filming the many emotional scenes in the movie and more.
Mary J. Blige, who plays Florence Jackson, Ronsel’s wife, was a major focus of the publicity campaign mounted by Netflix. She appeared on both late night and morning talk shows and was the subject of numerous profiles and feature interviews like this where she talked about taking on such a transformative role as well as her career in general along with issues of race, sex and more. Blige in large part became the central figure of the campaign right alongside Rees, who did her own publicity work to talk about being a black female filmmaker, the inspiration her family provided and more.
If it wasn’t a glowing portrait of Blige is was a profile of Mitchell and how he’s the next big star about to break into the mainstream. Or commentary on how this might be Netflix’s most serious play for Oscar validation. Carey Mulligan, who plays the sister-in-law of Jamie McAllen, also made various media appearances to talk about the movie and acting in general.
I kind of love this campaign. It’s low key but intense, just like the characters in the story. Unfortunately, any portrait of unequal treatment based on race is not only going to present a look back into the past of our country but an uncomfortable spotlight on our own times. That comes through loud and clear in the official marketing and is underlined in the publicity, where issues of race and gender were mentioned repeatedly.
That focus is going to make this a campaign people respond to very differently. It’s being sold as a prestige drama, exactly the kind of thing that wouldn’t fly at the box office going up against Justice League this week. And it’s attracted all the right kinds of attention, especially for Rees and Blige, to gain traction in that capacity. But the fact that the message of the film still has unfortunate timeliness may turn off some people who don’t want to be preached to or who feel, wrongly, that we should be moving beyond discussions of race.
Whatever the reception, the campaign itself is damn powerful, presenting a movie that pulls few punches in telling the story of people just scraping by.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.