Of all the names that came up during a typically contentious Golden Globes nominations announcement in Beverly Hills this week, Mary J Blige’s was perhaps the least controversial.
Critics have lavished praise on the soul queen’s magnetic turn as Florence Jackson, a stoic housewife in Dee Rees’s civil rights drama Mudbound, many noting how she disappeared completely into the role.
Blige, who got an acting coach to help her prepare, revealed at an awards season screening of the low-budget Netflix movie in Los Angeles last week that Rees wanted to strip away the star’s diva persona.
“Dee just said, ‘Get rid of Mary J Blige, period’ and it was hard to pull away from her because, you know, she’s been around. But Dee kept her foot down and said Florence doesn’t need to have anything to be beautiful,” said Blige, 46.
“She really put into perspective the things that I was holding onto that deem me beautiful, like lashes and stupid stuff like that. But Florence liberated me once she was born. She helped give me a whole bunch of new confidence.”
The New York native joined an exclusive club when she was nominated for best supporting actress and again, seconds later, for her song Mighty River, written specially for the movie.
Only six performers had previously earned songwriting and acting nominations for the Globes, the last of them John C. Reilly for Walk Hard a decade ago.
The real icing on the cake came on Wednesday, when she was nominated for best supporting actress at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, seen as a better bellwether for Oscars success than the Globes.
Rex Reed of the New York Observer describes Blige as “mesmerising” in Mudbound, while for Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, she “imbues Florence with such grit and radiant grace” that she deserves an Oscar nomination.
The adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2009 novel tells the sprawling, epic story of a black and a white family living and working side by side in the rural American south during the Jim Crow era of segregation and open discrimination.
Bound together as tenant and owner on shared farmland in the Mississippi Delta, the relationship between the neighbours is strained when young men from each clan return from the horrors of the Second World War.
The film stands out as a rare example of a Western which employs women in the lion’s share of creative jobs, with Rees relying on a trusted inner circle including cinematographer Rachel Morrison, make-up head Angie Wells, composer Tamar-kali, sound engineer Pud Cusack, and editor Mako Kamitsuna.
“I think women are the centre, period. We always hold things together. We suffer quietly because we have to, but we are powerful people,” said Blige, to cheers from the audience in Los Angeles.
Mudbound co-stars Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke as white sharecroppers Henry and Laura McAllan, Jason Mitchell as the Jacksons’ eldest son Ronsel and Garrett Hedlund as Henry’s brother Jamie.
A central theme of the movie is the manner in which people focus on their hatred of “the other” as a means of avoiding their own problems.
“After the hate goes away — because it’s something to hang onto, an excuse, an obstacle — we’re forced to deal with ourselves, and a lot of people don’t want to deal with themselves,” said Blige, who was speaking before her nominations were announced.
“That’s where the problem comes in — the world is afraid to look in the mirror. So I’m hoping that this film is making everyone look in the mirror, because it’s definitely a direct reflection of where we are today.”
In Mudbound that fear is manifested in the racist reaction to Ronsel and Jamie striking up a friendship after their return from Europe, but it is an issue which resonates beyond the Jim Crow era, says Rees.
“In school we’re taught about manifest destiny and the patriots, and this idea of freedom, but we never really interrogate what those founders did in the name of these ideals,” the 40-year-old filmmaker said.
“This film invites us to investigate our personal inheritance — how did we come by this land and this labour? — and that translates to now... Because we haven’t looked at ourselves as a country, we continue to have this cyclical behaviour.”
Clarke (Everest, Zero Dark Thirty) lamented the “lazy and bloated” ubiquity of blockbuster franchises, calling on actors to commit to projects like Mudbound that were “about something.”
“It’s personal responsibility, and I think it’s really important as we come to this part of the year when we’re celebrating great filmmaking,” he said.
“Great films, timely films, are super important and it’s very rare that a film gets ahead of the game... This is one of them and that’s truly why I think this film will last.”
Don’t miss it
Mudbound is now streaming on Netflix.