Powerful historical drama Mudbound arrives this Friday 17th November with the kind of awards buzz that most movies could only dream of.
Director and screenwriter Dee Rees has gathered together a potent cast, including British star Carey Mulligan, singer/actress Mary J Blige and rising Hollywood heavyweight Jason Mitchell, to tell the story of two families in 1940s rural America – one black, one white – who struggle to live and work together in an unforgiving landscape.
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It’s prime Oscar material, exploring bitter race relations and what it means to be an American against a gripping period backdrop.
It seems there’s just one problem. The movie is released on Netflix.
In October Deadline reported that members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists – the body that decides the Oscar winners – met to discuss whether Netflix should be considered a serious contender this year.
One prominent member reportedly said the streaming service represents “a cheapening of the Oscar” – Netflix releases its films in cinemas and online at the same time, posing a threat to the established order of cinema first, small screen second.
For those who have worked on the film, this debate is frustrating.
“We should begin with the fact that if not for Netflix, this film wouldn’t be seen; imagine that?” director Dee Rees tells RadioTimes.com. “None of the studios wanted this film. So for those critics over how it’s being screened, just consider that you wouldn’t have this film at all if not for Netflix.”
After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the film was warmly received by critics but not by buyers – until Netflix eventually swooped in with a record $12.5 million offer.
In order to meet the Academy’s requirements for Oscar nominations, the film will be released simultaneously on Netflix and in select cinemas. To qualify, the film must be shown for seven consecutive days in an LA County cinema. Rees finds the whole thing a little baffling.
“There are many mediocre films that screen in theaters,” she says. “Screening in theaters does not make them more cinematic. Mudbound is an excellent film and should be taken as such.”
Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos – an Academy member – is fighting their corner too, after fellow Netflix Oscar content Beasts of No Nation was passed over in 2015.
“We don’t need Oscars at all,” Sarandos told IndieWire flatly this summer. “I just don’t want our filmmakers to be disqualified for it because they did their movie with us. I want their films to compete for the Oscars on equal ground.”
Mudbound star Carey Mulligan agrees, telling RadioTimes.com that it would be hard to discount the film just because of where it’s showing.
“I think people would have to fight their instincts really hard to not get behind the film. It’s the right film to come out this year; the message is so important,” Mulligan says. “Everyone is so good, and Dee has made such an epic, exciting, amazing film; I think you’d have to have some really strong opinions to not want to get behind this film and support it all the way.”
However, isn’t talk like this part of the problem? Instead of being judged on its own merits, Mudbound is being bogged down in difficult conversations about what a movie actually is in the world of instant streaming.
“If you read Tolstoy on a Kindle, is it not Tolstoy? Is it not literature?” Rees challenges. “Is a book by publisher Random House more literature than a book by Viking? That’s the absurdity of the argument. I think Mudbound is cinema full stop.”
Rees is comfortable with releasing the movie on Netflix, but she has a message for subscribers: don’t watch it alone.
“As long as people are at home watching with their family, watching with their friends, there’s still that tension of community in viewing the film,” she says.
“To me it’s about bodies in the room; that’s the thing that changes it. People tend to watch TV in groups, and it’s that tension of the group, feeling the responses around you, reacting to what’s happening.
“[On Netflix] you have even more of a private space to respond to it. You don’t have to spend money to go out, you don’t have to buy popcorn, you don’t have to put on clothes. You can watch it without pants and just sink into it; that’s the draw!”
Mudbound is released on Netflix and in cinemas with Curzon from Friday 17th November